Amberley (2020) p/b 96pp £14.99 (ISBN 9781445686844)
The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) was established in 1997. It comprises a network of Finds Liaison Officers, based in different regions of England and Wales, to whom all finds should be reported. A central unit in the British Museum administers the scheme. Specialist advisers provide support. The principal contributors to the scheme are members of the public, who scour the ground metal detectors, sometimes with exciting results. All finds are documented, and their find-spots are recorded. The PAS database has become a major new resource for archaeological research.
By June 2019 the PAS database recorded 1.42 million objects. Some 625,000 of these (i.e. 45%) come from the Roman period. The abundance and diversity of these finds demonstrate the massive influence which the Roman occupation had on Britain, contrary to the views of certain modern scholars.
This fascinating little book examines just fifty of the Roman period finds in the PAS database. Chapter 2 (‘Roman power in objects’) describes a selection of objects related to the Roman subjugation of Britain. These include a half-life-sized bust of the emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Marcus never visited Britain, but statues of him would have appeared all round the empire during his nineteen-year reign. This bust is remarkably well preserved, considering that it was buried for almost 2,000 years and brought to the surface by a plough in 1976. Another find in this chapter is the ‘Staffordshire Moorlands Pan’. This small enamel-decorated pan was found by a detectorist at Ilam in 2003. Around its rim are the names of forts at the western end of Hadrian’s Wall, referred to as vallum Aelium. Although the authors do not specifically mention this, the particular importance of the Staffordshire Moorlands Pan is that it is our only evidence for what Hadrian’s Wall was called in ancient times.
Religion was a major part of daily life in the ancient world. Religious objects rightly form the subject of the longest chapter. These objects include two figurines of Minerva: as daughter of Jupiter and a goddess associated with wisdom, arts and crafts, she was certainly worth keeping on side. The first figurine is made of copper alloy. It portrays the goddess wearing a long tunic and cloak. She has on her arm a goat skin and an image of the Gorgon’s head, complete with coiling snakes. The second figurine is made of lead alloy. It depicts Minerva naked, with her legs apart as if riding a horse. Other objects in this group are figurines of Mars (war god); the sun god; an associate of Mithras and a fourth century finger ring with chi-rho motif, signifying that the wearer was a Christian.
Luck and magic were closely linked to religion. Fortuna was a goddess who received many soldiers’ prayers. She is portrayed in a beautiful figurine found at Piercebridge, duly carrying her cornucopia (horn of plenty). There are traces by her right foot of the rudder with which she steered fate. The PAS database includes many amulets with animal images, such as boar’s head ornaments. Apparently, these gave good protection to the wearer. One beautiful example is an amulet for the yoke of draught animals, found at Great Cranfield. It comprises a boar’s head with mouth wide open and a large curled tusk at the back. Many amulets have designs on this theme.
A vast number of dress accessories have come to light: finger rings, neck rings, bracelets, brooches, hair pins, earrings and similar items. Funerary portraits show how these items were worn in different regions. Many ‘Polden Hill’ brooches have been found along the River Severn and throughout the West Midlands. They have hump-like bows and caps on both wings. They are the output of many artisans working within a shared tradition, no doubt selling their wares at markets and towns along the roads of western Britain. Button and loop fasteners were commonly used for clothing or for smaller pieces of horse harness. More than 460 of them are documented on the PAS database. About 90 Roman period earrings have been recovered through the PAS. Some, like the gold earring illustrated on page 62, have exquisite decorations.
Other chapters review roadside finds and luxury items from villas. The élite classes had fine furnishings to stand on their mosaic floors, including elegant lamps and high quality furniture.
So where does all this take us? The book is not just a description of museum pieces. Collectively it provides a window onto life in Roman Britain: we see the simple utensils of ordinary folk and the expensive goods of the wealthy classes. The message is clear. The impact of Rome across the whole of England and Wales was profound. Romanization began in the first century (as described by Tacitus and noted by the authors in chapter 6). It reached its peak in the early fourth century, the golden age of ‘villa culture’.
Anyone with an interest in Roman Britain will enjoy this book hugely. It is an easy read and of modest size—a perfect addition, perhaps, for Christmas stockings!