The Grosvenor Museum’s abundant collection of Roman tombstones, largely discovered in the late 19th century, offers insights into the lives of Deva’s inhabitants. (Photo: L Marchini)

First opened in 1886, Chester’s Grosvenor Museum has been telling the story of the historic city for more than a century. Lucia Marchini tours the archaeological collections.

The Romans who founded a legionary fortress, Deva Victrix, at Chester in the AD 70s left their mark on the city. More than half of the line of the Roman defensive walls remains, and the pattern of streets largely follows that set out by the Romans. There are clear vestiges beyond the fortress walls too, such as the remains of the amphitheatre, the largest known from Roman Britain.

One of the best places to get acquainted with Deva’s inhabitants is the Grosvenor Museum. This lofty red-brick Victorian building was constructed in 1885-1886 to house the collections of the Chester Archaeological Society and the Chester Society of Natural Science, Literature, and Art. A timeline gallery introduces visitors to the area’s history from prehistory up to the 21st century, with a selection of artefacts representing the various periods, including a Bronze Age stone axe from Fordsham, an early 3rd-century Roman pottery stamp used to mark food, a fragment of a Saxon cross, a 1950s ration book, and an early mobile phone. Upstairs, there is a room dedicated to 400 years of hallmarked silver from Chester, the city’s main contribution to British art, and an art gallery, where paintings by Jacob van Oost the Elder and attributed to Jan Havicksz Steen, and two exquisite Wedgwood vases in black basalt, can be seen. At the rear of the museum is 20 Castle Street, a period house, built around 1680 and incorporated into the museum since 1955, with nine rooms presenting interiors from the 17th century to 1925.

Life in the legion

The highlight of the museum, though, is its Roman collections. These are divided into two main galleries. The first, the Newstead Gallery of Roman Chester and the Roman army, explores everyday life in the fortress, as well as the legion it housed, which, for most of its history, was the Legio XX Valeria Victrix. Material mentions of the legion, previously based in Colchester, Usk, and Wroxeter, and involved in the construction of Inchtuthil, include a roof tile stamped LEG XX VV, and the fragment of an antefix decorated with a boar, the legion’s emblem. Luggage labels attached to baggage in transit also carry the names of their owners and their cohort, century, or legion.

A number of pieces of cavalry equipment have been found in Chester: these bronze bells would have been attached to horse harnesses. (Photo: L Marchini)

Some cavalry equipment has been found at Chester, but it is not known whether this belonged to a full cavalry regiment stationed at Deva or the 120 horsemen that formed part of the legion. Among these finds are bronze bells, a pendant, and a terret ring (all would have been attached to a horse harness), a cavalry sword, and a chape (a strengthening cap from the bottom of a sword sheath) made out of bone and decorated with a pattern associated with the cavalry.

Keys and locks, coins, and cooking utensils speak of ordinary life in Deva beyond military activity, while a selection of reddish and glossy Samian ware imported from Gaul suggest wealthy inhabitants. This Samian ware was so expensive that it was often repaired when broken rather than discarded, as can be seen in one bowl on display that was mended with lead rivets.

Fragments of late 1st-century AD painted wall plaster, displayed as Newstead would have presented them. (Photo: L Marchini)

A bust of the museum’s first curator, Robert Newstead, stands at the entrance of the gallery bearing his name. He was curator of the Grosvenor Museum between 1886 and 1909, and carried out numerous excavations in Chester after the First World War, working on archaeological sites right up to his death in 1947, and retaining his finds for display in the museum. New research has since revised some of Newstead’s interpretations, but his care for artefacts and his investigations have helped improve our knowledge of ancient Chester.

In the gallery there is a display devoted to Newstead, showcasing the work involved in preparing displays, including cleaning and mounting objects, writing labels, and drawing diagrams. Found in 1935 in Chester’s Deanery Field, the fragments of late 1st-century AD painted wall plaster are presented quite charmingly with Newstead’s handwritten label. Similarly, the fragment of the rim of an olla-like vessel is placed on a drawing showing how the whole pot would have looked, while the fragment of a box-flue tile from the site of a bathhouse is accompanied by a sketch to illustrate how such tiles worked.

Death in Deva

Leaving this retro display case and moving into the second Roman galley, visitors are presented with a much more modern space and a thematic shift, transitioning from life in Deva to the realm of death. Between 1883 and 1892, during repairs to the city walls, over 150 Roman tombstones used as infill in the walls were discovered. The stones would originally have stood outside the fortress walls, either as a single grave-marker or as part of a larger tomb. Dating from the founding of the fortress through to the early 3rd century, the inscriptions commemorate soldiers, slaves, women, and children. Most of the carvings are still relatively sharp, leading experts to believe they were only exposed to the elements for a century or two. This suggests that in the 4th century the Romans repaired their wall using material from the cemetery outside the fortress, a pragmatic approach that seems to be widespread in the period.

Among the memorialised individuals are horsemen, including a Sarmatian rider carrying a dragon’s head standard that would have emitted a terrifying noise as air rushed through it; a man who died at sea; an optio (a junior officer identifiable from the tablet he would have used for book-keeping); and a centurion (recognisable from his vine staff) and his wife.

A tombstone dedicated to three slave boys: Protus and twin brothers Antilianus and Antitilianus. (Photo: L Marchini)

One common funerary motif is the banquet in the afterlife. We see a woman, Curatia Dionysia, commemorated in this way, and Marcus Aurelius Lucius, who holds a scroll (probably his will) in one hand and who, judging by his hair, may come from a ‘barbarian’ background. A particularly touching banquet tombstone is that of Flavius Callimporphous and his son Serapion. This was found not with the bulk of the stones during the city wall restorations, but in 1874 when a sewer was being laid.

Another moving inscription is one in which a master dedicates a single stone to three slave boys. Protus died aged 12, while Antilianus and Antitilianus were both ten when they passed away. The extreme closeness of the names and ages of the younger two boys suggests that they were twins.

These tombstones, recovered from the wall that preserved them for centuries, stand to be seen once more in this informative gallery, a lasting and fitting memorial to Deva’s ancient dead.

The Grosvenor Museum is open daily (10.30am-5pm Monday-Saturday; 1-4pm Sunday). Entry is free, but donations are welcome. Visit grosvenormuseum.westcheshiremuseums.co.uk for more information.

This review was published in CA 326.

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