Archaeological dig unearths Roman army treasures
Thursday April 26, 2001
A workshop which may have produced armoury for cavalry escorts of the Roman emperor Hadrian has been unearthed by archaeologists in the most significant find for 50 years from Britain's Roman period.
Weapons, siege equipment and some of the best-preserved armour ever discovered from the days of the legions are among hundreds of finds which will go on public display next year. Waterlogged ground on the site of the dig - by the main east-west street in Roman Carlisle - contained preserved leather bindings and complex iron scales joined by bronze wire which are thought to have protected cavalrymen's shoulders.
"We believe this is a unique discovery from anywhere in the Roman world," said Thom Richardson, keeper of Oriental and European armour at the Royal Armouries. "It has the potential to solve the puzzle of how such armour worked," he said.
The scale of the finds, which also include extremely rare sets of armour for arms and legs, was revealed when clods of rock-like, congealed mud and metal were taken for x-ray checks at the armouries in Leeds.
To the delight of the dig team, scans revealed the ghostly shape of the armour sections, plus brighter twists of wire, hidden inside. "Basically, they look like lumps of gunk at the moment, but we should have something really spectacular to show the world when conservation is finished," said Mr Richardson. Specialists will chip delicately away at the metal's mud casing, salvaging leather components as the work is carried out.
The finds, discovered during a rescue dig on the site of Carlisle's new Millennium Gallery by the former Roman fort of Luguvallium, are thought to be rejects and scrap which accumulated under the armourers' workbenches.
Mr Richardson said: "It looks as though we've got years of the sort of stuff engineers and craftsmen put to one side or throw away - bits of this and that which all help to build our picture of how the Roman army was equipped."
Mike McCarthy, head of Carlisle Archaeology (a commercial offshoot of Bradford university, which carried out the dig) said: "It's been a wonderful discovery, one of the most important yet from Roman Britain. The hundreds of different items are going to give us a fascinating insight."
The discovery is the biggest since large scale excavations in Corbridge in Northumberland, where material unearthed in 1964 changed historians' views of the Roman defensive system.
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ROMAN ARMY TREASURE UNEARTHED
ROMAN armour unearthed in Carlisle is being hailed as the most important discovery of its kind ever made in Britain.
Archaeologists working on the Roman fort in front of Carlisle Castle have uncovered what is thought to be part of an armoury workshop, housing hundreds of items of rare military value.
They include spearheads, slingshot, helmets, and many pieces of armour.
The fragments so far recovered, many complete with preserved leatherwork, include complete laminated limb defences, worn by legionaries on their sword arms and copied from the equipment of gladiators.
Experts say the hoard is uniquely significant, and will help historians answer long-standing questions about how Roman armour
The discovery has also revived calls that Carlisle should capitalise more effectively on its Roman heritage by displaying the artefacts in a Jorvik-style exhibition centre, helping boost the city's profile as a tourist centre.
Much of the armour has now been sent for study to the Royal Armouries in Leeds, one of the world's foremost museums in military matters. Experts there have used X-rays to study the finds in detail.
Some items are being kept in freezers at Durham University, where they will remain until they can be fully restored.
Mike McCarthy, managing director of Carlisle Archaeology said: "Nobody has found anything like this before. It ranks among the most important discoveries ever made in Britain from the Roman period.
"The hundreds of items recovered from the site provide a fascinating insight on the period and on the nature of the Roman defence of its northern frontier. It's unique in this country, and is within the top six discoveries of its kind in Europe.
"We have got vast quantities of Roman military equipment, and material which will shed new light on how Roman armour worked, and was put together. The display potential is huge.
"It could enhance the displays in Carlisle significantly. It's a terrific opportunity. We need to have discussions with the city council, Cumbria County Council, and English Heritage on how we should make the most of this opportunity.''
Mr McCarthy compared the find to the discovery of Viking remains in York, saying: "Carlisle is not York, but there are terrific opportunities here to give visitors and the people of Carlisle an exciting insight into our Roman past.''
Commissioned by the city council, archaeologists John Zant and Gerry Martin, of Carlisle Archaeology Ltd - part of the University of Bradford - discovered the armour on the floor of a building on the north side of the fort's main east-west road.
This building, opposite another identified as a smithy, has been tentatively identified as an armourer's workshop and dates from the Hadrianic period around the second century AD.
Because of their fragility and rarity, the artefacts were taken to the Royal Armouries, where Dr David Starley, the museum's scientific officer, assessed the objects using X-rays.
Thom Richardson, keeper of Oriental and European armour at the Royal Armouries, said: "Without doubt this is one of the most exciting and important archaeological discoveries of Roman armour in recent years.
"From initial observations it appears likely that it will provide invaluable technical information on how such armour was constructed and
The waterlogged nature of the deposit will also provide detailed evidence about aspects such as the articulation of iron plates by leathers which seldom survive."
Experts believe the armour dates from the first half of the second century after AD 103-5.
This is of particular interest because it is known that heavy cavalry accompanied the Emperor on his visit to Britain when he initiated the building of Hadrian's Wall.
Other discoveries from the site include large numbers of iron projectile heads, a number of spear-heads, clay sling-shot, ballista balls and bolts. It is hoped the latest finds will be revealed to the public in 2002.