The last week has been rather busy, not least because of the Roman Finds Group meeting that was held at Manchester Museum on 8th October, which I helped to organize. The group is aimed at people, museum curators, archaeologists and those who share an interest in Roman archaeology. First up was Paul Holder, who works at the University’s library and who is leading authority on Roman military diplomas. It was Paul who published Manchester Museum’s incomplete military diploma from Ravenglass, arguably awarded to a man perhaps from Heliopolis in the Lebanon who was recruited into a regiment from the Roman Army of Britain when an expeditionary force went out to help suppress the serious Judaean revolt during the reign of Hadrian in the 130s AD.
Norman Redhead, County Archaeologist and Director of Greater Manchester Archaeological Unit talked about recent work at Castleshaw Roman forts. This was not the first time the site had been excavated and Norman described the various interventions at this fascinating early Roman military frontier site, which lies between Slack, near Huddersfield, and Manchester. In the 18th century the antiquary Percival sketched two forts here and the people’s poet Ammon Wrigley did some work, but the first serious archaeological work was directed by Francis Bruton over two seasons in 1907-8. Rosser and later Thompson during the late ’50s and early ’60s carried out further work for the University of Manchester, helping to clarify the relationship between the earlier and larger fort for an auxiliary cohort, and the smaller, later fortlet for a garrison for as few as 50 men. There was a community programme excavation on the site during the mid 1980s.
The earlier fort was occupied between about AD 79 and the mid-90s AD and the fortlet between 105 and the early 120s AD. This tight chronological framework means that finds from the site can be closely dated. Unfortunately the soil conditions were prejudicial to the survival of many materials. One coin of Vespasian could only be documented because its imprint had been preserved in the soil, and even samian was very abraded. Glass objects survived very well, however. Other finds included a lava quernstone, melon beads of glass and faience, rusticated ware greyware sherds, an onyx intaglio depicting Minerva, and a little Black Burnished ware, which must have entered the North of England shortly before the fortlet was decommissioned in the 120s AD. The finds from the most recent work will go to the Saddleworth Museum. Manchester Museum has the finds from the university-led excavations.
Vanessa Oakden, Finds Liaison Officer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme spoke about the Knutsford Hoard which was found by a metal-detectorist and included 103 coins, three trumpet brooches, finger rings and vessel fragments. Unfortunately the point of deposition had been ploughed out and the hoard dispersed but there was still a dense concentration of metalwork over some 20 x 10 metres. Some of the coins were still stuck together from their time in the container. The coins included denarii struck for Mark Anthony’s legions, and issues of Vitellius, Hadrian and Antoninus Pius and those struck for imperial ladies such as Sabina, Lucilla and Faustina II. Vanessa compared the hoard contents with another Roman hoard found at Church Minshull, which had 58 denarii and trumpet brooches. The trumpet brooches were similar to the beautiful Carmarthen brooch. The more complete brooches helped explain the rosette mount found loose in the Knutsford hoard. It looks as though the Knutsford hoard was deposited in the 190s AD. It may represent the private wealth of a soldier, landowner or merchant, and is perhaps indicative of the importance of the salt trade in the economy of the area. For further details look this up on the Portable Antiquities database (LVPL -B44185/2012 T406).
The last session before lunch was presented by yours truly and I showed some of the Roman treasures from Manchester Museum’s archaeology collection, such as the Manchester word-square and talked about a couple of breakthroughs that had enabled us to provenance a previously unattributed sizeable collection of Romano-British pottery excavated by Prof.Donald Atkinson at Gayton Thorpe in Norfolk during the 1920s and a Romano-British pot from Longendale, purchased from some young lads who had found it hidden amongst some rocks. When first encountered in the store the latter shared its storage box with two unannotated small format black and white photographs showing the place of discovery and a cryptic note saying it was to be collected ‘by a gentleman’. A discussion of this acquisition turned up in an issue of Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society and the mysterious gentleman turned out to be Christopher Hawkes. This presentation was followed by a visit to the Museum archaeology store where I’d got out a selection of interesting material, including small finds from Castleshaw excavations, late iron Age metalwork from Bigbury, a complete set of decorative zoomorphic feet for a box or casket and an interesting but undoubtedly fake Mithras figurine. In this I was ably assisted and supported by Irit Narkiss, a member of the Museum’s conservation team, to whom thanks are due.
After lunch we were treated to a wonderful talk by Barbara Birley who presented the preliminary findings of her study of wooden combs from Vindolanda. The anaerobic soil conditions preserved a range of objects made of organic materials, including textiles, leather shoes, writing tablets and the combs. Vindolanda has yielded some 140 combs and this turns out to be the largest site collection to date (Roman London has only yielded 40). Most date from c.AD 85 to the 160s. Some of the combs were marked with graffiti or stamped with a maker’s mark. Some may have been used by professional hairdressers. Some were decorated with fretting and some had a copper alloy plate. The carefully-recorded excavations allowed the combs to be plotted spatially. One particularly interesting example came with its own leather carrying pouch or case.
Our next speaker, Gill Dunn, talked about recent finds from the Chester amphitheatre site. There were two phases of building and the dep0sits contained a fragment from the hilt of a sword and remains of fast food consumed by the crowds, such as swans, geese, duck, and chicken, and fish bones from salmon, eels and carp. In fact there are few sites with such a range of domestic fowl. There were pieces of ceramic portable ovens that were probably made at Holt. The glass included pieces of facet cut vessels and are indicative of relatively high status table ware. A large collection of gaming counters (above) – of particular interest to me because of the set found outside Manchester Roman fort – appear to have been redeposited from elsewhere. Metal finds included mail links, hob nails, tools, and iron finger rings.
The next speaker, Justine Bayley, talked about enamelled Roman objects. Enamel is glass fused to a metal sub-strate. Enamelling occurs on small decorative objects such as brooches, belt plates, seal boxes, studs, fittings and fasteners and votive stands, and occasionally is found on larger vessels, such as the Staffordshire Moorlands pan. Sometimes larger objects were made in separate pieces and soldered together. Some were clearly made a souvenirs for people to take away with them after a posting in the province. Reconstructions of enamelled metalwork showed just how gaudy the enamelled material was originally.
Our next speaker, Matt Ponting of University of Liverpool, presented results of a programme of sampling of silver Roman coins. Earlier work in this area had sampled the surface of the coins but this gave variable and misleading results because the Romans treated the coin blanks to brighten the surface. This project showed that the Julio-Claudian emperors had a fine silver coinage until Nero reduced the fineness from 93% to 80% silver. The results of the recent sampling were more consistent than earlier readings. This brought the denarius into line with the coinage of the Greek East and resolved problems with tax collection. The speaker also showed how studying isotopes from the samples might indicate the sources of the silver that was used. Some issues can now be characterized as using Spanish silver, some Gallic. It may be possible to identify a fingerprint for recycled metal. Matt acknowledged the institutions that had allowed sampling of coins in their collections, which include the Manchester Museum.
Our last speaker, Rob Philpott, from Liverpool Museum discussed finds from the Roman port of Meolls. In the mid 19th century Abraham Hume reported large numbers of mostly metal discoveries on the foreshore when that stretch of coastline was undergoing rapid erosion by the river. Activity seems to have started during the later Iron Age and there are Roman finds even before the region was absorbed into the Roman province. Meolls was an important trading centre on the edge of the tribal territory of the Cornovii, close to that of the Brigantes. The exploitation of salt in the North West may lay behind the economic transactions that we can detect in the coins and other metalwork found at Meolls. Sadly many of Liverpool’s finds were lost during bombing in World War II but more material has been recorded from the vicinity since then, including tantalizing objects from a later period such as a St Menas flask and a small hoard of Byzantine coins. Such discoveries are often explained away as redeposited souvenirs collected by British servicemen during the first and second World Wars but in some cases the original contextual information appears impeccable. A 6th century AD context for such finds in such a location, easily accessible by water, cannot be lightly dismissed.
Meolls reminded me strongly of a Roman port at Faxfleet, near Brough on the Humber Estuary in East Yorkshire, where large quantities of Roman pottery dating from the later 1st and early 2nd centuries AD was found. Its location close to the confluence of a number of tributaries flowing into the Humber would have made it a useful location for trade. Unlike Meolls, most of the material found was ceramic. Another site further along the estuary at Redcliff, like Meolls, shows evidence of Roman trade some decades before the Romans came to northern Britain.
There was a great mix of papers at this meeting and my thanks to all those who presented or helped with the day.