Over centuries of study and incalculable hours of excavation, thousands of objects have been discovered from Hadrian’s Wall and its immediate environs. These range widely in size, from sculpted and/or inscribed stones as large as a person and weighing more than a tonne, to tiny charred grains of wheat that are easily overlooked. As CA readers know, artefacts and material-culture studies are a vital and essential field in their own right, and each new discovery furthers our understanding of the Wall and the military communities that lived along its length.
The ‘delightful (baker’s) dozen’ of artefacts presented here is a humble attempt to highlight the rich material culture of this justly famous frontier monument, and to stimulate a sense of what life was like on a Roman frontier. The diversity of objects recovered is truly amazing, and this selection is inevitably incomplete – to help narrow down what to include, each object had to be both representative of a larger body of material culture, and also have further archaeological significance. Even with such criteria in place, though, our list could easily double – and to be truly representative, we would need to cover at least 50 finds. A more complete array of artefacts will soon be published in Living on the Edge of Empire: the objects and people of Hadrian’s Wall, but for now the following 13 will have to do!
Credit where credit’s due
Hadrian’s Wall was not always called Hadrian’s Wall. Documents from the later medieval and early modern periods show that it was known as the ‘Picts’ Wall’, and subsequently the ‘Roman Wall’. Fierce debate also raged through the 18th and early 19th centuries as to which emperor built the Wall, based on readings of Classical texts – was it Hadrian or Septimius Severus? Inscriptions proved vital in this debate, and one, from Milecastle 38 (Hotbank), was particularly important.
Discovered before 1757, its text and location proved once and for all that the Wall was built under Hadrian. It reads: IMP[ERATORIS] CAES[ARIS] TRAIAN[I] / HADRIANI AUG[USTI] / LEG[IO] II AUG[USTA] / A[ULO] PLATORIO NEPOTE LEG[ATO] PR[O] PR[AETORE], which translates as ‘[This work of the] Emperor Trajan Hadrian Augustus [was built by] the Second Legion Augusta under Aulus Platorius Nepos, propraetorian legate’.
The case for Hadrian would appear closed, but should anyone need further convincing, there are further clues: the appearance of Aulus Platorius Nepos provides useful dating information, as he was the governor of Britannia from AD 122-125/126, while the mention of the Second Legion Augusta confirms that the army was responsible for building the Wall.
Fun and Games
The soldiers of the Wall had their military duties to attend to, of course, but they did not spend all their time soldiering. Gaming boards and counters, and dice and shakers, are found at sites along the Wall; the pictured examples come from Corbridge. Such game pieces were made from a variety of materials, some cut into shape from fragments of broken pots or even purpose-made in ceramic, as well as carved in bone, jet, or stone, or moulded in glass. Boards were stone or ceramic, with a simple carved linear grid. Two games that could be played using this design were ludus latrunculi, a game of military tactics, or duodecim scripta, which was similar to backgammon.
In addition to board games, dice games were also played, though they did not involve the perfectly carved cubes that we have come to expect. Gaming boards, counters, and dice are found in towns and forts, but also at turrets and milecastles – proving that soldiers were as keen to combat boredom during the Roman period as today.
Fun was not the exclusive purview of soldiers, though, as a writing tablet from Vindolanda testifies. Of the many Vindolanda Tablets discovered at this fort south of the Wall (see p.34), the ‘birthday party invitation’ is perhaps the most famous. Finds associated with this tablet suggest that it was deposited at some point between AD 103 and 105, though it could have been issued slightly earlier, perhaps anytime from c.AD 98. The invitation was sent to Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Flavius Cerialis, the prefect commanding the Batavian auxiliary unit at Vindolanda.
The sender, Claudia Severa, was the wife of a commanding officer at another, unidentified fort in the frontier, and (based on another tablet composed by her) she and Sulpicia Lepidina seemed to have struck a friendship and maintained correspondence. The invitation reads: ‘On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present. Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him their greetings’.
The tone of the message is warm and friendly – a touching insight into matters outside the military affairs that often dominate frontier studies – but the tablet is also interesting because it was written in two distinct hands. The first was probably that of a scribe or household servant of Claudia Severa, but the closing greeting (‘I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail’) seems to be by Claudia Severa herself – perhaps representing the earliest example of proven female handwriting from the Roman world.
The Wall and the broader frontier was a vibrant and dynamic region. Thousands of soldiers from across the empire were settled in northern Britannia, and in addition to the women and children who followed them, merchants and traders were also attracted to provide goods and services. The frontier was host to the full canvas of human experiences, emotions, and relationships. People were married, and love was acknowledged and valued – as we can see in objects like a beautiful betrothal pendant, carved in jet in the late 3rd century, from Vindolanda. It shows a woman and a man kissing on one face and hands clasped on the reverse – while we do not know the names of the couple, their affection is clear.
Sometimes names for particular individuals do survive, though often we can only guess at their full story – as with the tombstone of Regina, from South Shields (the lead image of this feature). This memorial testifies that Regina came from the Catuvellauni tribe (whose territory lay just north of London), that she had lived to the age of 30, and that she was a former slave who had married Barates, a man from Palmyra in modern Syria. The tombstone hints at a fascinating human story, but we know nothing more about either Regina or Barates, unless a burial inscription of the standard-bearer [Bar]athes Palmyrenus, aged 68, from Corbridge refers to the same man – possible, but not certain.
Another tombstone, this time from Carlisle, shows a figurative scene carved in red sandstone. It depicts a woman with a child, though as it is missing any accompanying inscription we do not know the names of these people. They were residents of the town of Carlisle, and it seems safe to assume that the child is the woman’s son, but otherwise they remain anonymous. But the high level of preservation of the carving provides insight, if not into their lives, into the fashion of the time. The woman has an ornate hairstyle and is wearing two undergarments, a tunic, and a palla or mantle (the multiple visible layers of fabric hint at her wealth). Both her fan and the pet bird in her lap serve as fashion accessories, and her son is dressed in a single undergarment, tunic, and cape.
Sculpture is not the only evidence for fashion. Dress accessories like brooches, necklaces, finger-rings, earrings, bracelets, and anklets are common finds at sites along Hadrian’s Wall. These objects can be made in a variety of materials, and the shape and style of such objects changed over time, too. As such, it is not possible to describe a typical ‘Roman’ fashion, as it was not the same in the 4th century as it was in the 2nd century. Regardless of the style, though, dress accessories were important in terms of signalling a person’s identity.
The Aesica Hoard, which includes rings, brooches, a bracelet, and a necklace made in silver and gold, was found in 1894 in the west guardroom of the south gateway of the fort at Great Chesters. Intriguingly, these objects have different dates of manufacture, and some were more than 100 years old when the hoard was deposited in the later 3rd century. Might we think of some of the jewellery in the hoard as antiques or family heirlooms? It is also notable that many of the pieces – which were clearly the work of highly skilled jewellers – were quite large and made of precious metal. When worn, these objects would have been highly conspicuous symbols of the wealth of the owner and their family.
Another fascinating ornament is a sardonyx cameo of a bear, found during antiquarian excavation at South Shields. Cameos are well known from across the Roman Empire, and are more commonly found in major imperial centres like the city of Rome itself. Undoubtedly, this cameo was carved by a master artisan, perhaps even someone attached to the imperial court – the creation of the distinct colours in layers that are revealed through subsequent carving was practised and mastered by very few individuals. Such objects signal the presence of a person or persons with both very high status and great wealth. It is unknown exactly how the cameo was worn, though it is presumed to have been part of a more complex piece of jewellery. It was made far from South Shields, and almost certainly found its way to the site as the property of a Roman VIP – perhaps we might even imagine it in the possession of a member of the imperial household of Septimius Severus.
Gods old and new
The Roman Empire brought many new gods to Britannia, and many of these were incorporated into official rituals of the Roman army. Jupiter, as king of the gods and associated with the office of the emperor, was particularly important. Altars were erected to ‘Jupiter Best and Greatest’ (IOVI OPTIMO MAXIMO, frequently abbreviated IOM), across the Wall corridor, and a series of such altars were found at Maryport in the 1870s, deposited in pits approximately 350m north-east of the fort. These objects help us to understand how the worship of Jupiter was linked to the imperial cult and other rituals that bound the army to the state; their subsequent deposition in pits also tells us about the changing ritual practices in the later Roman Empire (as explored in CA 298, see also p.46 of this issue).
Concurrently, some of the gods of the local British people were also worshipped by frontier garrisons. If it were not for the Roman habit of inscription, we might have never known the names of these deities, like Cocidius, Antenociticus, and Coventina. A shrine dedicated to Coventina, which included a well that was filled with stones and artefacts when the shrine was dismantled in the late 4th century, was found outside the fort of Carrawburgh. Such gods did not always fit neatly into the Roman pantheon, though in some cases local and Roman deities were linked in a process known as syncretisation. For example, we have the case of Mars-Thinscus, in which the Roman god of war was coupled with a Germanic war god.
The technology of war
Despite the thousands of soldiers garrisoned along the Wall over a period of nearly 300 years, there are not as many finds of weapons and armour as might be expected. This is in part because iron – the basis for most weapons – is prone to corrosion, but also because the Romans would repair and recycle their weapons and armour as necessary, a process seen quite clearly in the Corbridge Hoard. This cache consisted of multiple pieces of lorica segmentata armour from different sets, as well as other objects that were probably deposited by a smith with the intention of future recycling. The discovery of this hoard and the impressive state of preservation of its contents was vital in understanding how the armour was constructed, and forms the basis for many modern replicas today.
Beginnings and endings
Hadrian’s Wall was the focus of the frontier, but the frontier existed before the Wall was built, and even when the Roman rule of Britain came to an end in the early 5th century, the frontier communities did not simply disappear. Two artefacts serve to illustrate these points.
A modius, or grain measure, found at Carvoran in 1915 may attest to the fort’s pre-Hadrianic foundation. The inscription that it bears claims it was made in the 15th consulship of the emperor Domitian, and that it had a capacity of 17.5 sextarii, a weight of 38 pounds. However, Domitian’s name was removed from the object as part of his damnatio memoriae (‘condemnation of memory’, or oblivion as punishment, in which the offender’s existence was wiped from public record – Domitian was sentenced to such a fate by the Senate, who viewed him as a tyrant, following his assassination). In addition, the actual volume of the modius is less than claimed. Was the quartermaster cheating the soldiers when doling out their grain rations?
At the other end of the historical scale, the silver handpin found at Denton, Newcastle, probably dates to the 5th century. It is incomplete, missing the full length of the pin, but it was probably used for holding clothing. What is significant, though, is the intricate, detailed decoration of its head, which consists of motifs typical of the Romano-British frontier and late Roman military metalwork – a wonderful symbol of the culture of this portion of Britannia.
This baker’s dozen of objects, while just the tip of the iceberg, eloquently demonstrates the frontier communities of the Wall to be diverse people drawn from across the empire, with their own stories and sense of fashion. Objects and traditions could be imported or incorporate local practices, and could represent official military activities or simply be a way to pass the time. Our understanding of the Wall is much richer for having such glorious material culture to study.
Dr Rob Collins is Lecturer in Material Culture at Newcastle University and was, for eight years, the Portable Antiquities Scheme’s Finds Liaison Officer for the North East.