Introduction to Roman finds: ‘Why study small finds?’

Lindsay Allason-Jones


Lindsay Allason-Jones
Lindsay Allason-Jones
1. Iron nail from Inchtutil
1. Iron nail from Inchtutil

Archaeology is the study of the people of the past. If we only use the evidence of the buildings archaeologists excavate, we can get a one-dimensional view of people’s lives. By looking at the artefacts from the site and arranging them by themes, such as domestic, personal, religious, military or work, it may be possible to identify how a site was used and develop a more rounded picture of those who lived there.

2. Nailed wooden coffin © Nick Griffiths/Museum of London
2. Nailed wooden coffin © Nick Griffiths/Museum of London

To a specialist even the most mundane objects can reveal much about a site. Most excavations, such as Inchtutil, produce large numbers of iron nails. By carefully plotting where these are found, wooden partitions, doors and staircases may be indicated. Although the wood of Roman coffins rarely survives, the evidence and position of iron nails can reveal this as the method of burial.  

3. Iron strap hinge © Museum of London
3. Iron strap hinge © Museum of London

The number of nails and other iron objects found indicates the enormous amount of iron required in a Roman province, as well as the importance of smiths. Sometimes all that remains from a door is the iron strap hinge with the length of the nails indicating the thickness of the wood.

4. Multi-nozzled ceramic lamp
4. Multi-nozzled ceramic lamp

Domestic items, such as pottery lamps, remind us that all domestic households, temples, military and civic buildings needed light if they were to function efficiently and lamps will feature in more detail in another film. In Roman Britain, these would have burned olive oil but would have given little light and would have needed constant attention – trimming the wicks and filling the reservoir – if they were to burn constantly and if smuts were to be kept to a minimum.

5. Hanging lamp
© Museum of London Archaeology
5. Hanging lamp © Museum of London Archaeology
6 Silver spoons from Thetford
© British Museum
6. Silver spoons from Thetford © British Museum

This copper-alloy lamp and chain hanger (with digitally enhanced flame and background) has a rounded nozzle, circular lid and lunate projection at the back which would have served both as a handle and to keep the lamp away from the wall. The hanger had a spike which would have been driven into a wooden beam. Part of the hemp wick survived inside the nozzle.

Spoons are found in all sorts of materials, from gold, silver (such as these spoons from Thetford) and bronze, (see the example from Hadrian’s Wall) to bone and wood, depending on what they were used for and the status of their owners.

7. Bronze spoon from Hadrian's Wall
7. Bronze spoon from Hadrian’s Wall

Many have long pointed handles, which according to the Roman writer Pliny, were used to winkle out snails and shellfish (Nat. Hist. XXVIII.4.19). Pliny also recorded the superstition of piercing the shells of snails or eggs when you had eaten them to ensure spirits didn’t take up residence – a fascinating example of how the most basic artefact can have layers of meaning and significance, over and above their principle use.

8. Enamelled plate brooch
8. Enamelled plate brooch

Personal objects, such as this enamelled copper-alloy plate brooch from Hadrian’s Wall, link us to individuals from the past. Brooches can suggest the ethnic origins of the wearers, their tastes, their level of disposable income, and the fashions of the time as well as the technologies and decorative techniques available to the brooch makers.

9 Bow brooch
9. Bow brooch

Three basic types of brooch can be found on Roman sites in Britain: the bow brooch, the plate brooch and the penannular brooch. This is only a very simplistic typology with many variations recorded for each type depending on where they were made and the method of manufacture. A more detailed description of the types will feature in films about brooches and how they were made.

10. Penannular brooch © British Museum
10. Penannular brooch © British Museum
11 Bow brooch © Museum of London
11. Bow brooch © Museum of London

The humped bow of the bow brooches indicates that they were used to secure fabric, either to keep tunics in position or to hold cloaks and some had a loop at the hinged end to take a chain that would link one brooch to another. Plate brooches can’t hold as much material; these may have been purely decorative or worn as badges, very much as people wear them today.

12 Plate brooch © Museum of London
12. Plate brooch © Museum of London
13 Clues to dress © British Museum
13. Clues to dress © British Museum

Because fashions changed over the 400 years the Romans were in Britain and different garments required different fastenings, some brooches can be dated. A few have a gender bias, others have a limited geographical distribution. Jewellery also indicates fashion and wealth and although there are few examples for clothing surviving in Britain, the reliefs and paintings, such as the coffin paintings from Fayoum in Egypt, that have survived elsewhere in the empire enable archaeologists to infer the fashions for those living in Roman Britain. All these details can tell us a great deal about the people who lived at a particular fort or in a particular town or villa.

14 Bone gladius handle © Museum of London
14. Bone gladius handle © Museum of London
15 Lorica hinge fragment © Museum of London
15. Lorica hinge fragment © Museum of London

A high proportion of the people living in Roman Britain were attached in some way to the army. However, surprisingly few military objects have been found, largely because they were carefully looked after during use and, if damaged or no longer useful, recycled to make new arms and armour. Bone sword handles could not be repaired and were thrown away but small copper-alloy fittings for body armour (lorica) could be reworked. Luckily, even a very small piece of armour or a weapon can be distinctive enough to be identified. For example, a knife from Sewingshields milecastle on Hadrian’s Wall has an iron blade; the handle was of wood, held in place by a copper alloy end plate and four copper alloy rivets.

16 Leather scabbard © Colchester Museum
16. Leather scabbard © Colchester Museum

Some military knives and their scabbards are highly decorated and were clearly intended to demonstrate their owner’s sense of importance. A fine example from Colchester shows just how ornate the scabbard could be. This was made of leather and inlaid with brass and enamel.

17 Child's leather shoe © York Museums Trust
17. Child’s leather shoe © York Museums Trust

A leather shoe can also indicate the presence of the military or women and children, as well as reveal changing fashions York. It has a sole with hobnails, an inner sole of several layers, an openwork toe and openwork where the side of the heel survives.

18 Jet Medusa pendant © York Museums Trust
18. Jet Medusa pendant © York Museums Trust

Their religious beliefs were of great importance to the people of Roman Britain but these beliefs would have varied, depending on where each person came from and their experiences through life. Not all religious artefacts are large stone altars or sculptures; many people carried amulets on their person, made from metals, semi-precious stones or bone, to protect them against evil. This Medusa pendant from York was carved in jet, thought to have magical properties for women.  The subject matter, depicting Medusa, was to protect the wearer from evil spirits. The pendant has a smooth worn surface indicating that it could have been regularly worn on the person.

19 Portable lead shrine
19. Portable lead shrine

This unusual miniature lead cupboard, standing only 75mm high, contains the cut-out figure of the god Mercury. This is a portable shrine, found at the Roman fort of Wallsend on Hadrian’s Wall. Clearly someone living there wanted to worship Mercury wherever and whenever they wished. This is an object which is made in several pieces, each of which might have puzzled archaeologists if found on its own.

Identifying artefacts can often be like a jigsaw, needing imagination to work out what is missing as well as what has survived.

20 Excavating a coin hoard © Museum of London Archaeology
20. Excavating a coin hoard © Museum of London Archaeology

Dating what is found can be difficult – if an object is particularly valuable or attractive it may have been handed down through the generations.

21 Hoard of gold coins © Museum of London/Museum of London Archaeology
21. Hoard of gold coins © Museum of London/Museum of London Archaeology

Coins found in a sealed context can provide tight dating evidence. However, they might have been hoarded through a person’s lifetime or have been in circulation for many years before being deposited. This hoard of 43 gold coins from London was found hidden in a stone-lined compartment under the floor of a wealthy house near the Forum and Basilica. The coins spanned some 100 years, the earliest coins of Nero were worn and had been in circulation while the latest coins of Marcus Aurelius were in fine condition, enabling archaeologists to date the deposition of the hoard to after AD174.

22 Denarius of Faustina II
22. Denarius of Faustina II

A silver denarius, like this one of the empress, Faustina II, which was minted before AD161, is a fine example. These would have been used to pay the soldiers. Coins sometimes tell us where they were minted, in this case in Rome; these foreign mints, give us a glimpse of Britain’s international links at the time.

23 Coin of Nero © Museum of London
23. Coin of Nero © Museum of London

Coins may have religious images on their reverse side – indicating the worship of a specific deity – or show propaganda, informing the people of the Roman Empire of a great victory or event. This copper-alloy coin of Nero celebrates the opening of the market (macellum) in Rome.

24 Silver denarii of empresses © York Museums Trust
24. Silver denarii of empresses © York Museums Trust

The coins of empresses, such as these coins of Faustina I, Faustina II and Julia Domna would also have kept provincials up to date with the latest hairstyles and can help modern archaeologists date sculpture.

The objects, mentioned so far, have been made from different materials, each of which requires specific technologies if it is to be made into an artefact. This may be as basic as having a multi-purpose iron knife or an understanding of how to transform a lump of metal mined from the ground into a copper-alloy brooch or an iron nail.

25 The introduction of glass in the form of vessels © Museum of London Archaeology
25. The introduction of glass in the form of vessels © Museum of London Archaeology

Archaeologists need to be aware of the limitations and potential of different materials if they are to understand the technology of the period as well as the likely date of objects.

The Roman period in Britain was one of great technological change, with new methods and materials, such as glass, being introduced.

By looking at small finds we can trace these changes and how they affected the lives and appearance of the people from all over the known world who visited or lived in Roman Britain.


The Roman Finds Group would like to thank Lindsay Allason-Jones, Newcastle University, The Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, the British Museum, the Museum of London, Museum of London Archaeology and York Museums Trust for allowing use of the objects and images.

Production of the accompanying film was made possible by Newcastle University.  

Further reading:

Allason-Jones L (ed) Artefacts of Roman Britain – their purpose and use (2011)
Brickstock R J (2000) The Production, Analysis and Standardisation of Romano-British Coin Reports (2004).