The 73-mile length of Hadrian’s Wall, as well as the forts and structures associated with it, has yielded thousands of intriguing objects shedding vivid light on life on the Roman frontier. Rob Collins picks out 13 key finds that highlight how the material culture of the monument can enhance our understanding of the people who lived and worked along it.
Over centuries of study and incalculable hours of excavation, thousands of objects have been discovered from Hadrian’s Wall and its immediate environs. These range widely in size, from sculpted and/or inscribed stones as large as a person and weighing more than a tonne, to tiny charred grains of wheat that are easily overlooked. As CA readers know, artefacts and material-culture studies are a vital and essential field in their own right, and each new discovery furthers our understanding of the Wall and the military communities that lived along its length.
The ‘delightful (baker’s) dozen’ of artefacts presented here is a humble attempt to highlight the rich material culture of this justly famous frontier monument, and to stimulate a sense of what life was like on a Roman frontier. The diversity of objects recovered is truly amazing, and this selection is inevitably incomplete – to help narrow down what to include, each object had to be both representative of a larger body of material culture, and also have further archaeological significance. Even with such criteria in place, though, our list could easily double – and to be truly representative, we would need to cover at least 50 finds. A more complete array of artefacts will soon be published in Living on the Edge of Empire: the objects and people of Hadrian’s Wall, but for now the following 13 will have to do!
CREDIT WHERE CREDIT’S DUE
Hadrian’s Wall was not always called Hadrian’s Wall. Documents from the later medieval and early modern periods show that it was known as the ‘Picts’ Wall’, and subsequently the ‘Roman Wall’. Fierce debate also raged through the 18th and early 19th centuries as to which emperor built the Wall, based on readings of Classical texts – was it Hadrian or Septimius Severus? Inscriptions proved vital in this debate, and one, from Milecastle 38 (Hotbank), was particularly important.
Discovered before 1757, its text and location proved once and for all that the Wall was built under Hadrian. It reads: IMP[ERATORIS] CAES[ARIS] TRAIAN[I] / HADRIANI AUG[USTI] / LEG[IO] II AUG[USTA] / A[ULO] PLATORIO NEPOTE LEG[ATO] PR[O] PR[AETORE], which translates as ‘[This work of the] Emperor Trajan Hadrian Augustus [was built by] the Second Legion Augusta under Aulus Platorius Nepos, propraetorian legate’.
The case for Hadrian would appear closed, but should anyone need further convincing, there are further clues: the appearance of Aulus Platorius Nepos provides useful dating information, as he was the governor of Britannia from AD 122-125/126, while the mention of the Second Legion Augusta confirms that the army was responsible for building the Wall.
FUN AND GAMES
The soldiers of the Wall had their military duties to attend to, of course, but they did not spend all their time soldiering. Gaming boards and counters, and dice and shakers, are found at sites along the Wall; the pictured examples come from Corbridge. Such game pieces were made from a variety of materials, some cut into shape from fragments of broken pots or even purpose-made in ceramic, as well as carved in bone, jet, or stone, or moulded in glass. Boards were stone or ceramic, with a simple carved linear grid. Two games that could be played using this design were ludus latrunculi, a game of military tactics, or duodecim scripta, which was similar to backgammon.
In addition to board games, dice games were also played, though they did not involve the perfectly carved cubes that we have come to expect. Gaming boards, counters, and dice are found in towns and forts, but also at turrets and milecastles – proving that soldiers were as keen to combat boredom during the Roman period as today.
Fun was not the exclusive purview of soldiers, though, as a writing tablet from Vindolanda testifies. Of the many Vindolanda Tablets discovered at this fort south of the Wall (see p.34), the ‘birthday party invitation’ is perhaps the most famous. Finds associated with this tablet suggest that it was deposited at some point between AD 103 and 105, though it could have been issued slightly earlier, perhaps anytime from c.AD 98. The invitation was sent to Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Flavius Cerialis, the prefect commanding the Batavian auxiliary unit at Vindolanda.
The sender, Claudia Severa, was the wife of a commanding officer at another, unidentified fort in the frontier, and (based on another tablet composed by her) she and Sulpicia Lepidina seemed to have struck a friendship and maintained correspondence. The invitation reads: ‘On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present. Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him their greetings’.
The tone of the message is warm and friendly – a touching insight into matters outside the military affairs that often dominate frontier studies – but the tablet is also interesting because it was written in two distinct hands. The first was probably that of a scribe or household servant of Claudia Severa, but the closing greeting (‘I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail’) seems to be by Claudia Severa herself – perhaps representing the earliest example of proven female handwriting from the Roman world. 105, though it could have been issued slightly earlier, perhaps anytime from c.AD 98. The invitation was sent to Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Flavius Cerialis, the prefect commanding the Batavian auxiliary unit at Vindolanda. The sender, Claudia Severa, was the wife of a commanding officer at
The Wall and the broader frontier was a vibrant and dynamic region. Thousands of soldiers from across the empire were settled in northern Britannia, and in addition to the women and children who followed them, merchants and traders were also attracted to provide goods and services. The frontier was host to the full canvas of human experiences, emotions, and relationships. People were married, and love was acknowledged and valued – as we can see in objects like a beautiful betrothal pendant, carved in jet in the late 3rd century, from Vindolanda. It shows a woman and a man kissing on one face and hands clasped on the reverse – while we do not know the names of the couple, their affection is clear.
Sometimes names for particular individuals do survive, though often we can only guess at their full story – as with the tombstone of Regina, from South Shields (the lead image of this feature). This memorial testifies that Regina came from the Catuvellauni tribe (whose territory lay just north of London), that she had lived to the age of 30, and that she was a former slave who had married Barates, a man from Palmyra in modern Syria. The tombstone hints at a fascinating human story, but we know nothing more about either Regina or Barates, unless a burial inscription of the standard-bearer [Bar]athes Palmyrenus, aged 68, from Corbridge refers to the same man – possible, but not certain.
Another tombstone, this time from Carlisle, shows a figurative scene carved in red sandstone. It depicts a woman with a child, though as it is missing any accompanying inscription we do not know the names of these people. They were residents of the town of Carlisle, and it seems safe to assume that the child is the woman’s son, but otherwise they remain anonymous. But the high level of preservation of the carving provides insight, if not into their lives, into the fashion of the time. The woman has an ornate hairstyle and is wearing two undergarments, a tunic, and a palla or mantle (the multiple visible layers of fabric hint at her wealth). Both her fan and the pet bird in her lap serve as fashion accessories, and her son is dressed in a single undergarment, tunic, and cape.