Friday 29 April 2016

Some Romano-British objects found in Europe & North Africa

Previous posts on this site have discussed a variety of material found in Britain that is suggestive of long-distance trade and movement in the past. For this post and the next, however, I thought it might be interesting to look briefly at some recent research into artefactual evidence pointing in the opposite direction instead—that is to say, at finds of British-made items from areas outside of the British Isles. What follows looks at Romano-British brooches and other objects found in Europe and North Africa, and the subsequent post will do the same for Anglo-Saxon items.

The distribution of Romano-British objects in Europe and North Africa, primarily brooches, after Ivleva, 2011, p. 135, and Ivleva, 2012, with minor additions and modifications and plotted on a base map from Wikimedia Commons (image: C.R. Green). 

Romano-British brooches found outside of the British Isles have recently been the subject of considerable research by Tatiana Ivleva, who completed her PhD on this topic in 2012. All told, she has identified 242 British-made brooches of the first to third centuries AD found on 102 sites in continental Europe or North Africa, along with a number of inscriptions in which the people mentioned are either identified or identifiable as Britons. The vast majority of these finds have been made in the north-western Roman Empire, from the provinces of Germania Inferior, Germania Superior and Gallia Belgica, but smaller numbers are found in Pannonia and even across to the northern Black Sea coast, with two coming from urban sites in Morocco. Needless to say, such finds form an intriguing body of evidence and Tatiana Ivleva suggests that their findspots can be explained in a number of ways. For example, 17 of the 103 sites that produced these brooches are in places or areas where we otherwise know that Roman military units raised in Britain were present in the era that the brooches were made, such as Cohors VI Brittonum in what is now the Netherlands, the Ala I Britannica and cohors I Britannica in Hungary, and British numeri units on the German limes. Equally, other brooches come from sites where there is surviving epigraphic evidence for the presence of Britons in the Roman era, as at Cologne, or where there is evidence for returning veterans whose units were once stationed in Britain, whilst yet others come from sites that are likely to have seen the presence of craftsmen and/or traders who could have been either Britons themselves or have visited Britain.(1)

The most distant examples of British objects identified overseas by Ivlev consist of two brooches from what is now Morocco, a fitting from Egypt, and a number of British items from two sites on the northern Black Sea coast. The two items from Morocco are a trumpet brooch found either in or close to the administrative centre of the Roman province of Mauretania Tingitana, Volubilis, a city that is believed to have had a vexillatio Brittonum posted in one of its five surrounding forts in the second century AD, and a headstud brooch from the civilian quarter of Thamusida (insula G5), a town inhabited by retired veterans. It has been argued that both brooches are most credibly interpreted as items brought to Mauretania Tingitana by members of British military units or their detachments, perhaps as heirloom pieces worn over several generations given that they are corroded, extremely worn, and date from the later first century AD rather than the second century, when the presence of British detachments in North Africa is attested.(2) A similar interpretation might be applied to the Egyptian find too. This is a British enamelled terret ring from a horse harness, which was found at Fayum (ancient Crocodilopolis/Arsinoë) and is of a type that was very common in Britain, with a virtually identical example having been excavated from the Romano-British 'small town' at Wanborough, Wiltshire, in 1969. Although it is impossible to be entirely certain how it came to be in Fayum, it has been noted that detachments of legion III Augusta were sent from Numidia to Britain in the second century AD and that the cohors I Ulpia Afrorum equitata, a cavalry unit, was stationed in Britain in the 120s and then in Egypt during the 130s, which is potentially suggestive.(3)

Finally, the finds of British items from the northern Black Sea coast come from ancient Gorgippia (Anapa, Russia) and Chersonesos Taurica (near Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula) and consist of Romano-British enamelled oil scrapers/strigils, an enamelled hexagonal alabastron or incense burner, and a number of British-made belt buckles. Both cities were within the Bosporan Kingdom, a client kingdom of the Roman Empire, and Chersonesos—where the buckles were found—certainly saw a number of Roman military units posted there, something that Ivleva suggests may account for the presence of the British finds at both sites, via soldiers who had previously served with other units from the region that had been to Britain, such as the legio I Italica. On the other hand, Jane Petersen has noted that the Gorgippia finds, at least, come from an exceptionally high status grave context, perhaps even belonging to the ruling family, and are luxury items imbued with Romanitas, which suggests these might be better seen as exotic imports from Romano-British workshops that were being used by the Bosporan elite as a means of signalling their familiarity with, and connection to, Roman culture.(4)

A probably British enamelled terret ring from a horse harness, found at Fayum—ancient Crocodilopolis/Arsinoë—in Egypt (image: British Museum). A virtually identical example was excavated from the Romano-British 'small town' at Wanborough, Wiltshire, in 1969, see A. S. Anderson et al, The Romano-British 'small town' at Wanborough, Wiltshire: Excavations, 1966-1976 (London, 2001), p. 96.


1     T. Ivleva, 'British emigrants in the Roman Empire: complexities and symbols of ethnic identities', in D. Mladenovič & B. Russel (eds.) TRAC 2010: Proceedings of the 20th Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference, Oxford 2010 (Oxford, 2011), pp. 132–53. Slightly different figures are reported in her 2011 article compared to her PhD thesis of 2012 (see fn. 2); the latter are adopted here.
2     T. Ivleva, Britons Abroad: the Mobility of Britons and the Circulation of British-made Objects in the Roman Empire (University of Leiden PhD Thesis), pp. 329–31.
3     A. S. Anderson et al, The Romano-British 'Small Town' at Wanborough, Wiltshire: Excavations, 1966–1976 (London, 2001), p. 96; Ivleva, Britons Abroad, pp. 329, 331.
4     Ivleva, Britons Abroad, pp. 323–4; J. H. Petersen, 'Communicating identities from beyond? Assessing expressions of identity in funerary material from the Black Sea region', HEROM, 2.1 (2013), 45–73, especially pp. 55, 57–60, 67 and fig. 6; M. Treister, 'The date and significance of tomb II at Gorgippia (1975 Excavations)', Ancient Civilizations from Scythia to Siberia, 9 (2003), 43–85 at p. 59. On the incense burner/alabastron and its British origins, see also H. Cool, 'Panelled Enamel Vessels', Roman Finds Group Newsletter, 13 (1997), pp. 2–3.

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