First finds from Milecastle 46

Last month we reported on the launch of the first modern excavations at Magna Roman fort and the nearby Milecastle 46 on Hadrian’s Wall, and finds from this period have already started to appear. One of the most exciting artefacts recovered so far is a copper-alloy steelyard beam, which would have been used by a Roman tax official, trader, or merchant to weigh small, high-value items passing across the border.

While the early stages of the excavation did not produce large quantities of finds, this was not unexpected as, during the 14th century, the site was heavily robbed of stone, probably to build the nearby Thirlwall Castle. During the fourth week of digging, however, the milecastle’s foundations were slowly revealed, and the steelyard was discovered alongside one of its outer walls.

This copper-alloy steelyard beam is the first artefact to be recovered during the new excavations at Milecastle 46. Image: The Vindolanda Trust

Describing the recent discovery, Rachel Frame, Senior Archaeologist at the Magna site, said, ‘This was a part of the site we had been working in the week before, but there had been no signs of any artefacts at all in this area; the extremely heavy rain that we had over the weekend helped to wash the last cover of soil from one end of the steelyard beam, revealing just a few centimetres of the artefact. At first, I thought it could be a large pin or needle, but it became clear as the find continued to be uncovered and features like the central fulcrum revealed, that it was something much more special and could tell us a great deal about how the milecastle may have been used.’

The steelyard beam measures 22cm long and has a decorated central fulcrum hole from which it may have been suspended, possibly on a chain. On one end of the beam there is a typical triple bevel design and a smaller suspension hole where the weighing pan would have once been attached, and on the other side are 11 evenly spaced, small, circular silver inset points – each spaced 10mm apart – which would have been used to move the measuring weights along the arm.

This find suggests that the milecastle may have been used as a trading post for both the import and export of goods across the frontier. Not every milecastle would have served this function, and Milecastle 46 might have been chosen as it is located at the junction point of three major Roman roads: the Stanegate, the Maiden Way, and the Military Road.