Sunday, May 2, 2010

Life on the frontier in the Roman Empire

Publication of the Millennium excavations in the grounds of Carlisle castle has shed new light on what life must have been like for a Roman soldier posted to Britannia, at the edge of the empire.

The report details the 80,000 artefacts discovered in the five trenches on the Castle Green and Eastern Way. One of the most important aspects of the excavations is that, because of the waterlogged soil, a great deal of wood was preserved, including 2,000 large pieces of timber and there were also significant leather remains including shoes and tents. Other finds included pottery, coins, animal bone, spearheads and arrowheads, and jewellery.

The timber, wooden posts and leather tent fragments are significant because the survival of wooden structures from this period is uncommon, not only Britain but beyond, and the amount and condition of the material has added significantly to knowledge of the construction and appearance of Roman military buildings in the first and second centuries AD.  In addition, articulated armour was also found, a first for a British Roman site. 

The Roman fort is thought to have been built in72 or 73AD and housed around 500 soldiers. The good condition of the wood fragments enabled archaeologists to work out how the smaller pieces were used in building construction and that the internal walls of the fort could be changed to suit the differing needs of the soldiers housed within it. 

The finds have helped build up a picture of the everyday life of the soldiers. They hunted deer for food, and preferred mutton to lamb (as attested by the age of the sheep bones). They spent some of their spare time playing a Roman version of draughts, but also devoted some of their time to their appearance: finds include razor blades, combs and fragments of mirrors. A touch of reality was provided by the fact that one of the combs still had a louse attached. 

July 2010 will see the opening of a new Roman gallery at Tullie House in Carlisle, where some of the finds will be on display, and which will place Carlisle in its broader Roman context. In fact, the city was an important Roman town with civitas status, and the finds from this excavation, including this beautiful piece from a horse harness, have helped to illustrate this and throw light on the lives of the soldiers who served there.