Roman Jet and the Malton Bear

A close up photo of an accurately carved bear made from jet
Figure 7 – Malton Jet Bear

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Roman Jet, and the Malton Bear in particular, give us a fascinating insight into Roman life through some highly impressive pieces of artistic jewellery and charms.

The death of Prince Albert in 1861 marked the start of 40 years of mourning by Queen Victoria. It also led to a fashion for the wearing of black and jet jewellery across Victorian society. As an adornment jet had been largely ignored since enjoying tremendous popularity in Roman Britain during the 3rd and 4th centuries.

The beginning of the Roman interest in jet is associated with the visit of Julia Domna to York in 208 AD (Figure 1). She had accompanied her husband, the Emperor Septimius Severus, and their two sons, Caracalla and Geta, there prior to a campaign in Scotland. But it cannot have been a particularly joyous family gathering, especially as the only interests shared by the two brothers were reckless extravagance and fratricide!

An irregular Roman coin with detailing of a head profile of Julia Domna one side and a depiction of Venus on the other
Figure 1 – Denarius of Julia Domna

Julia Domna had been born in Syria and her father was high priest in the temple of the sun god El-Gabal. In addition to being extremely well-read with broad interests in art, philosophy, religion and politics, she was also a trend setter. Her hairstyle was copied by individuals including the Empress Salonina as well as the Palmyrian Queen Zenobia, and it is said that she introduced the wearing of wigs into Rome.

It is quite possible that, during her time in Britain, Julia became fascinated by jet and captivated by some of the objects she would have seen in York. Intriguingly her name, Domna, is an archaic Arabic word meaning “black”, referencing the nature of El-Gabal which took the form of a black stone.

Although, today, we are aware of static electricity, there would have been something magical to the Romans about a substance that, according to the 3rd century author Solinus `detains things close to it when heated by rubbing`. Pliny also mentioned that, when burnt, jet could be used to detect malingerers or women masquerading as virgins, in addition to being able to drive off snakes.

Jet is a type of lignite, the lowest rank of coal, and the variety from Whitby is derived from the fossilised wood of an extinct species, not like our Monkey Puzzle Tree. Most Roman jet was probably obtained by beachcombing along the coast near Whitby, (Figure 2) being then transported inland to workshops at places such as York and Malton.

Two irregular pieces of Whitby jet pieces
Figure 2 – Jet from beachcombing at Whitby

Several items of jet decorative jewellery have been unearthed in Malton including rings, beads, a spindle whorl and pins in addition to a splendid, segmented bracelet (Figures 3 & 4). Finds of numerous unfinished jet fragments and an incomplete lathe-tuned baton provides evidence for jet working at Malton.

A well polished jet ring with some minor damage in a few places
Figure 3 – Jet ring
A bracelet made up of lots of jet rings fastened together
Figure 4 – Jet segmented bracelet

The religious and magical associations of jet are evidenced by the finds of jet amulets carved in the shape of Medusa heads in graves of young adult females from Roman York (Figure 5). Such items were regarded as having the power to attract and hold evil powers thereby diverting them from other targets, such as the wearer. In some places jet pieces in the shape of animals have come to light – big cats, foxes, bears and eagles. Many of these carved objects exhibit evidence of rubbing too, perhaps to produce an electrostatic effect associated with various magical practices.

Three images howing the face, profile and reverse of a jet pendant
Figure 5 – Jet Medusa pendant

In 1929 a grave was excavated just outside the north-east gate of the Malton Roman fort. Alongside an infant skeleton was a jet bear, a jet bead, a copper alloy bracelet and an early 3rd-century coin (Figure 6). Despite missing its hind legs, the jet figure is an excellent model of a Eurasian Brown Bear, depicting the strong muscle hump behind the head (Figure 7).

A childs skeleton which appears to be badly fragmented
Figure 6 – An Infant grave
A close up photo of an accurately carved bear made from jet
Figure 7 – Malton Jet Bear

Seven other jet bears have been found in infant burials from Roman Britain and it is suggested that they represent guardians placed in the burials to ensure that the child did not enter the underworld alone and unprotected, perhaps linked to the Greek cult of Artemis. The coins found with the jet bears from York and Malton might have been put there to pay the ferryman for the occupant’s journey into the underworld.

Figure 1: Denarius of Julia Domna, excavated at Brough in 2020 ©Nick Summerton

Figure 2: Jet from beachcombing at Whitby

Find out more about Whitby Jet on ©Geology.com

Figure 3: Jet ring from Malton ©Malton Museum

Figure 4: Jet segmented bracelet from Malton ©Malton Museum

Figure 5: Jet Medusa pendant from York, Photographed by York Museums Trust Staff ©Commons:Licensing., CC BY-SA 4.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38964856

Figure 6: Infant grave outside north-east gate of Malton fort ©Malton Museum

Figure 7: Malton jet bear ©Malton Museum

The Roman Army Medical Service

A detailed stone carving showing several injured Roman soliders being given medical assistance and others Roman soldiers standing in the background
Figure 1 – Capsarius illustrated on Trajan`s Column

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The Roman Army Medical Service assisted Roman soldiers using a wide variety of medical techniques and specialist equipment, some of which was used for very specific purposes.

Roman soldiers would have suffered from many of the same illnesses as we do today. But some of the injuries they received as they battled across Northern Britain were quite distinct from those encountered in modern warfare.

Slashing and cutting wounds from swords would have been particularly common. Occasionally these could be quite deep, exposing internal organs – in fact, military service was seen as a golden opportunity for physicians to learn more about human anatomy!

Other weapons used by the British tribes included spears, knives, axes, stone sling shot and, less commonly, arrows. Consequences for some unfortunate Roman soldiers included fractures, head and eye injuries in addition to penetrating abdominal and chest wounds.

All cuts and abrasions needed cleaning and dressing: some others required stitching too. Sometimes, more complicated surgery was necessary to remove bone fragments, stop bleeding or to extract spear points.

Traumatic wounds are at particular risk of getting infected and honey dressings were frequently used by the Romans. The military physician Dioscorides wrote that `honey is cleansing, opens pores, and draws out fluids. Boiled and applied it heals flesh that stands separated` . Nowadays we are beginning to appreciate the wisdom of our ancient forbears and the important healing properties of natural honey.

A lot of basic wound care would have been provided by fellow soldiers, some of whom – the capsarii – were trained first aiders. On Trajan`s column a capsarius is shown bandaging a fellow soldier’s leg and two others are assisting a wounded comrade (Figure 1). The capsarii were probably under the control of a doctor with the rank of a centurion, the medicus ordinarius. The richly embellished tombstone of Anicius Ingenuus, medicus ordinarius of the first cohort of Tungrians from Housesteads perhaps reflects his importance amongst his colleagues (Figure 2).

An illustration of a tombstone alongside an interpretation of the text it contains
Figure 2 – Tombstone of Ancinus Ingenuus, medicus ordinarius

The repair of a simple flesh wound was the most performed surgical procedure undertaken by individuals such as Anicius Ingenuus. Basic surgical kits consisting of probes, hooks, forceps, needles, cautery tools and scalpels were readily available (Figure 3), and several possible items have been discovered in excavations at Malton.

A set of 12 items of Roman medical equipment
Figure 3 – Reconstructed basic medical kit

Stitching cuts with a needle and thread was not dissimilar to the approach used today, but if there were any concerns about infection or inflammation the fibulae technique was often preferred. This entailed passing copper-alloy skewers through the wound and then looping threads around them in a figure-of-eight fashion. The Roman author Celsus wrote that `fibulae leave the wound wider open…..in order that there may be an outlet for any humour collecting within` (Figure 4).

An illustrated diagram of a Roma medical procedure known as a 'fibulae' with letters set out accross it
Figure 4 – The use of fibulae for skin closure

Some surgical instruments available to Roman military surgeons were quite ingenious. The Dioclean cyathiscus was a spoon-shaped tool with a small hole at the base to take the point of a spear or arrowhead. It would have been passed down into the wound and then rotated slightly to accommodate the weapon which could then have been withdrawn. Specially made forceps would have been used to remove bone fragments as well as for clipping arteries and stopping bleeding (Figure 5).

A photo of a pair of brass medical forceps with highly decorated handles, shown in an open position
Figure 5 – A pair of brass forceps

In a fort such as Malton it is highly likely that there was a military hospital – valetudinarium – as was the case at many of the forts along Hadrian’s Wall. At Housesteads a possible hospital has been identified behind the principia away from the general hustle and bustle of the fort. It is rectangular in plan with a series of small rooms arranged around a central courtyard (Figure 6).

A photo showing the remains of buildings on the site of the hopsital at Housesteads
Figure 6 – The hospital at Housesteads

Unlike our modern hospitals valetudinaria were quite small, being only able to accommodate up to 5% of a unit. Soldiers requiring long-term care or convalescence might have been granted sick leave to recuperate elsewhere. From Malton some may even have travelled to the Bridlington area benefitting from the healing effects of sea water and sea air, perhaps at Gabrantwikone Bay mentioned by the 2nd Century geographer Ptolemy.

Figure 1: Capsarius illustrated on Trajan`s Column ©Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Find out more about Trajan’s Column on Wikipedia

Figure 2: Tombstone of Ancinus Ingenuus, medicus ordinarius, from Housesteads ©Nick Summerton

Figure 3: Reconstructed basic medical kit: forceps, needles (bone & brass), scalpels, probes and skin hooks ©Nick Summerton

Figure 4: The use of fibulae for skin closure ©JF Ratcliffe

Figure 5: A pair of forceps for removing bone fragments or clipping arteries (reproduction) ©Nick Summerton

Figure 6: The hospital at Housesteads ©Nick Summerton

Found out more about Housesteads from English Heritage