Wroxeter Roman City

A new site museum tells the story of what was the fourth-largest town in Roman Britain. Carly Hilts visited to find out more.

Image: English Heritage

After Claudius’ invasion force landed on England’s south coast in AD 43, the Roman army surged north, rapidly conquering territories inhabited by Iron Age peoples. By AD 47, it was the turn of the Cornovii, whose lands were centred on modern Shropshire. (They share a name with a group in Cornwall; it is not known if they are linked.) Their stronghold, crowning a hill today called the Wrekin, was burned, and a large fort was built to secure a strategic crossing of the River Severn. When the army left for Chester c.AD 90, the fort was replaced by a town: Viriconium Cornoviorum, better known as Wroxeter.

Located on Watling Street, the main Roman road leading south to London and the wider empire via Richborough, the settlement flourished to become a civitas (regional capital) and the fourth-largest town in Britannia. Today, much of its archaeology is preserved beneath farmland, but a section incorporating a large public bathing complex and associated facilities is on view under the care of English Heritage. On the other side of the modern road bordering the site, visitors can also see columns from the forum, and a reconstructed townhouse.

Excavations in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, as well as in the 1970s to 1990s, have illuminated various aspects of Wroxeter’s story – and the most recent light is shed by a new site museum, whose displays are organised to explore themes including domestic and commercial activities, food, religion, industry, medicine, and fashion. Housed within a single room, the artefacts speak eloquently of the impact of the Roman incursion on the lives of the Cornovii – a community of cattle-farmers who did not use pottery or coins – as well as the interests of the Romans themselves. Some of the early soldiers and settlers seem to have brought keepsakes with them (including a ring bearing an image of the Egyptian pharaoh Ptolemy XII, which was already a century old by the time it arrived at Wroxeter), while objects in indigenous styles, from a colourful glass bead made by the neighbouring Dobunni people to a decorative mount shaped like a bull’s head, represent local artistic expression. Their presence alongside military buckles, a javelin point, and tools that could have been used to build the fort remind us that this meeting of cultures was not initially amicable.

Once established, however, contact with imperial Rome opened new trade networks reflected in the imported goods found at Wroxeter: decorative Samian ware, wine, fancy glassware, and exotic foods. We also see evidence of the administrative machinery that accompanied the Roman army: styli, an inkpot, seal boxes for money bags. Even the smallest finds on display have big stories to tell. A tiny winged serpent suggests a devotee of the goddess Ceres; fragments of mosaic floor and painted plaster evoke the long-vanished luxury of the town’s houses; and hairpins of different sizes allow us to trace the evolution of women’s hairstyles, as longer pins were needed to secure more elaborate up-dos. At times, the objects on show prompt sparks of recognition; others remind us that the past truly can be a foreign country – none more so than a fragment of masonry depicting ‘a winged phallus pulling a cart of little phalluses’.

Further information: For more details about visiting Wroxeter Roman City, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/wroxeter-roman-city.