50 Roman Finds by John Pearce and Sally Worrell
Here authors John Pearce and Sally Worrell discuss what got them both interested in archaeology and how they came about writing their book ‘50 Roman Finds from the Portable Antiquities Scheme’.
SW - My interest in archaeology was sparked as a child by curiosity over the objects found in the fields opposite the house in which I grew up. This land was farmed by my father and the metal detectorists would show me the objects they had found, mostly Roman coins, but also a prehistoric hand axes and medieval seals, mud-spattered but still intriguing things from a remote past. It turned out, as I showed in the dissertation I later wrote studying archaeology at Durham, that under those fields lay the remains of a Roman roadside settlement and the objects reflected the lives of villagers living on one of Roman Britain’s trunk routes. Working for the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), set up in 1997 to encourage finders of archaeological objects, mainly metal-detectorists, to make available for recording the artefacts they found, means that much of my professional life has been spent trying to make sense of antiquities of this kind. My first role was as Finds Liaison Officer for Hampshire, and since 2003 I have been the PAS national finds adviser for later prehistoric and Roman Britain, based at University College London. Writing the book enabled me to reflect on some of the highlight objects that I’ve worked on in the last two decades.
JP - My interest in archaeology developed later, initially as a way to spend time in warm places at minimal expense during university vacations. After doing my Masters at Durham, where Sal and I met, I wrote a PhD on Roman burial practice and have worked subsequently in research and teaching posts in Roman archaeology – I’m currently at King’s College in London. One of the great opportunities of being in London is the possibility to work with colleagues at the city’s many museums. In the 21st century the Portable Antiquities Scheme, based at the British Museum, has been one of the most important new sources of information on Britain’s past (very close to 1.5 million objects now recorded). It has been a privilege to have collaborated in the last decade or so in publishing some of the key new Roman finds.
SW and JP – Given that more than 600,000 of the PAS finds are of Roman date, it was a major headache picking just 50 and it would have been easy to fill several books of this kind. Since the majority of Roman objects recorded by the PAS are coins, on which colleagues who specialise in numismatics have published widely, we have mainly included artefacts of other kinds instead. We decided on a thematic structure rather than one based on regions or periods, but we have aimed to include objects from across the whole of England and Wales. Our objects date from the first major contacts with Rome in the 1st century BC to the last decades of the province of Britannia in the early 5th century AD.
We have organised our objects in seven chapters, expressions of Roman power, worship of the gods, magic and lucky charms, dressing the body and styling its appearance, travelling the roads of Britannia and household interiors. In our choices we have tried to achieve a balance between exceptional and typical things. The famous cavalry parade helmet from Crosby Garrett, Cumbria is a good example of the former, a piece of armour otherwise barely known from the province and not directly paralleled in any surviving helmet from antiquity. Our brooches, which once pinned Romano-British tunics and cloaks, illustrate more typical artefacts. Our handful of brooches had to be selected from more than 30,000 examples, since these are the Roman artefacts most frequently recorded after coins. We also chose objects to indicate the exploitative character of Roman occupation – the lead ingot stamped with an emperor’s name, for example, as an illustration of the metal resources which were a motive for Roman conquest. Alongside symbols of Roman authority like this we have also included things which embody the impact of local Iron Age traditions on provincial lives, including those of Britain’s invaders. The swirly multi-colour enamel inlay on a bronze vessel from Ilam, Staffordshire, a likely souvenir of Hadrian’s Wall (now displayed alternately in Carlisle, Stoke-on-Trent, and London), shows how Roman soldiers developed a preference for objects decorated in ‘Celtic’ styles. We have emphasized the less familiar aspects of provincial life too, for example the obsession of Romano-Britons with warding off evil using ornaments carrying lucky motifs, often in the form of human genitals.
We didn’t find it easy to agree over which objects to include, but a joint favourite is the Capricorn figurine from Somerset, a substantial (>900g) bronze statuette showing this frolicking goat-fish, a rare object even in the wider context of the Roman empire. The image is closely associated with the emperor Augustus, who chose Capricorn as his auspicious sign, despite being a September baby. Yet the style of the statuette suggests it was made in Britain, and as a mid-winter Zodiac symbol it also calls to mind the star-gazing embedded in the layout of iconic monuments from Britain’s prehistoric past, most famously Stonehenge. Many objects, even some-well publicised discoveries, remain in private collections, but after acquisition by the Museum of Somerset Capricorn can be enjoyed on display in Taunton.
Finally, as we emphasize above, our selection represents a tiny minority of the objects discovered. We hope that readers will want to exploit the database themselves to make their own choices (www.finds.org.uk).
John Pearce and Sally Worrell's book 50 Roman Finds from the Portable Antiquities Scheme is available for purchase now.