Roman Armour and Metalworking at Carlisle, Cumbria, England

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Recent excavations at the Roman fort in Carlisle, Cumbria, have yielded a large number of pieces of articulated Roman armour and other items. This is the most important such find in Britain since the Corbridge hoard was excavated in 1964 (Allason-Jones & Bishop 1988).

On the north side of the via principalis adjacent to the headquarters building (principia), the corner of a timber building was uncovered (FIGURE 2). On the floor was a quantity of articulated and disarticulated fragments of predominantly ferrous Roman armour, including as many as three crushed, but complete, laminated arm defences. Although first used by Hellenistic cavalry and referred to in Xenophon's Art of horsemanship (XI.13-XII.5), and later used by gladiators, this type of armour was adopted by Roman legionaries. It was once thought that armguards (manicae) were very rare and only employed under special circumstances, such as Trajan's wars in Dacia where they were used to counter the deadly scythe-like falx (Richmond 1982: 49-50). A number of similar finds have been made, as at Newstead (Curie 1911: plate XXIII) and Richborough, Kent (M. Lyne pers. comm.), but they are often isolated and the pieces crushed, making reconstruction difficult and speculative. A graffito from Dura-Europos (FIGURE 1) shows a mounted soldier with a tall helmet and a mail or scale neck-guard, with similar limb and abdominal defences (Robinson 1975: figure 190). The Carlisle assemblage is important for the retrieval of articulated pieces, with associated copper-alloy rivets and leather.

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One of the most spectacular pieces is a patch of scale armour that appears to have belonged to the shoulder of a lorica squamata, which should aid our understanding of how scale shirts were put together. Another spectacular item is a scale neckguard from a helmet, formed of dozens of iron scales held together with bronze wire (FIGURE 3), resembling armour known only from sculptures of Parthian heavy cavalry. Some iron scales on other fragments appear to be plated with copper-alloy foil.

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Amongst the weaponry are large numbers of catapult, bolt- and spear-heads, and a previously unrecognized type of artillery head. Baked clay sling-shot, stone ballista balls and possible examples of the heavy pilum, as well as saddle plates, serve to confirm the presence of both infantry and cavalry within the fort. Much of the weaponry was found in the principia, but the clay sling-shot was found in a nearby workshop (fabrica).

The armour and the workshops are all tentatively assigned on stratigraphic grounds to the first half of the 2nd century AD, perhaps the later part of Trajan's reign or that of Hadrian (AD 117-138).

In the 1970s, the late Dorothy Charlesworth uncovered the south gate (porta praetoria) and ramparts, and some internal buildings, of a well-preserved fort at the confluence of the rivers Eden and Caldew at Carlisle (Luguvalium). Subsequently, the Carlisle Archaeological Unit established the sequence of building extending from its foundation in AD 72-3 through to the 4th century AD.

The new excavations undertaken by Carlisle Archaeology Ltd will add substantially to our knowledge of the fort, and the contents of the waterlogged deposits will shed important light on the question of how forts were used. …