Pair of rare Roman-era swords found in Gloucestershire

A pair of Roman swords – the first to be found in the Cotswolds, and thought to be only the second time two have been found in the same context in the whole of Britain – has been discovered during a metal-detecting rally in Gloucestershire.

The swords were found by detectorist Glenn Manning in March, and were subsequently recorded by Kurt Adams, Finds Liaison Officer for Gloucestershire, under the Portable Antiquities Scheme. After discussing the significance of the finds with Kurt, Glenn decided to donate the swords to the Corinium Museum in Cirencester – although the museum has a large Roman collection, these are the first swords from this period that the Corinium has acquired, attesting to their rarity. With the assistance of Historic England, the swords are currently undergoing further analysis and conservation.

The two Roman swords were discovered together with a small number of fittings and a copper-alloy bowl. Photo: Corinium Museum

Before this work began, however, the swords were initially assessed by Simon James, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Leicester. He identified them both as middle imperial spathae – which was a military slang term roughly translating to ‘stirrer’, possibly referring to the fact that they were much longer than the short swords used by infantrymen during the 1st century AD. Over the next century, spathae became more common than short swords, before replacing them completely by the end of the 2nd century. Such swords would have primarily been used on horseback – both by cavalrymen and by civilians who needed protection while travelling – and while they were used for slashing, they were also capable of stabbing.

Although the characteristics of each sword will become more apparent after they have been cleaned of corrosion and conserved, at the moment one appears to be slightly shorter than the other. Both seem to have been buried in their scabbards, and while these have since disintegrated into the soil, traces preserved in the corrosion suggest that they were both made of wood, tipped with copper-alloy chapes. A few fittings, which would have been used to attach the scabbard to a belt, were recovered, too. It does not appear, however, that the sword belts themselves were buried alongside the weapons, something that would have confirmed whether they had belonged to a Roman soldier. Overall, based on their currently known characteristics, Simon has dated the swords to between the middle of the 2nd century and the end of the 3rd century AD.

There is only one other known example of two Roman swords buried in the same context. They were discovered during excavations at Canterbury Castle in the 1970s, when two individuals were found buried face-down in a pit within the clay walls of the town, the Roman swords thrown down on top of them. It is believed to have been a clandestine burial, perhaps evidence of murder.

Unfortunately, the context of the Gloucestershire example is currently unknown, but it is hoped that an excavation of the find-spot will be carried out soon in order to provide more details as to how and why these swords were buried together. Did they come from a grave, or perhaps form part of a larger hoard? Archaeological investigations should be able to fill in some of these details.

Once conservation and research on the swords is complete, they will go on display at the Corinium Museum.