Roman Eye Health

A intracate looking gold coloured metal box with an inset containing five compartments with doors: a central door with two smaller doors on either side - these all appear to be made of similar metalic material - both the inside edges of this box, and the edges of the door-closures, have a crimped pattern - the central compartment, which is open, has a rasied piece inside that resembles a quarter sphere: this is a bowl/cup on the reverse, used for mixing paste made from a collyrium fragment - each door also appears to have looped handles that resemble an exaggerated Greek Omega symbol
Figure 4: Reconstructed eye box with view of central compartment

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Most of us would probably consider that modern medicine and technology has brought about eye care, and that ‘Roman Eye Health’ and any treatments or remedies probably didn’t exsist – yet both archaeological, and written accounts tell us that such things certainly did exsist.

The health of the eyes was a particular concern in the Roman world. The eyes were considered a privileged body part and the transition point between the soul and the outside world.

Unfortunately, crowded bathhouses and the excellent communications afforded by the road network would have contributed to the spread of infectious eye diseases across the Empire. From Britain a military strength report of the First Cohort of Tungrians found at Vindolanda specifically categorises the thirty-one soldiers signed off as unfit into three distinct groups: aegri (sick; 15); volnerati (wounded; 6); and lippientes (eye troubles; 10).

Within the Roman medical literature there was a significant emphasis on the treatment of a variety of eye diseases using eye ointments – or collyria. For example, the first century doctor Scribonius Largus, listed twenty-two collyria and Galen, physician to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius over two-hundred. In addition, collyrium stamps are found throughout the Western Roman Empire and two dozen have been discovered in Britain. These would have been used for impressing the name of the maker, the remedy and the purpose of the treatment onto a newly manufactured collyrium (before it was left to harden). Work I have undertaken with the students at Malton School has demonstrated the remarkable effectiveness of many of these Roman medicines in treating eye infections.

An irregular small stone square collyrium stamp (looks like a thick tile) - this stone is shown at an oblique angle to show carved text along two edges - there is also text carved onto the face of this square
Figure 1: A collyrium stamp from Kenchester

Typically, collyrium stamps are small square blocks made of greenish schist or steatite with wording on each of the four edges (Figure 1). In a few instances the stone is oblong with two inscribed sides and in one example from Wroxeter, the stamp is circular (Figure 2). The letters are cut in intaglio form and written from right to left so that when stamped on a soft collyrium they make an impression that reads from left to right.

A black and white illustration of a circular collyrium stamp set within an rough edged irregular circular shape
Figure 2: A collyrium stamp from Wroxeter

Lippitudo (acute conjunctivitis) is the mostly frequently cited problem mentioned on the British stamps followed by aspritudino (chronic conjunctivitis). The example from Cambridge is inscribed:


the collyrium of Lucius Julius Salutaris, to be applied with a fine brush for lippitudo of the eyes

A collyrium stamp discovered in York (Figure 3) bears the letters:


Julius Alexander`s salve made from misy for aspritudo

A dark coloured slightly irregular rectangular stone collyrium stamp- this stone looks fairly worn and has some evidence of damage, as well as a large number of scatches - Along the top edge there is carved text that looks like it has a lighter coloured material deposited with it
Figure 3: A collyrium stamp from York

Collyrium stamps may have been handed on from person to person and even down the generations. In an example from St. Albans the name Flavius Secundus is executed in a rougher style than that for Lucius Julius Ivenis suggesting a succession. Also, the green colouration of the stones was thought to confer some sort of magical property to the object.

Intriguingly collyrium stamps are absent from many areas of the Roman Empire and it has been argued that they relate to the different medical systems in Gaul, Germany and Britain at the time. Perhaps the sticks of medicament were prepared in bulk at a larger town – such as York, London or Colchester – for use by eye healers making regular circuits around the local countryside. In 1990 a Roman grave was found near Lyon including a brass box with four compartments that contained 20 baton-shaped collyria. Also discovered were three brass probes of the type used to mix medicaments alongside a worn slate grinding stone. It is likely that many travelling eye healers would have carried such equipment.

A intracate looking gold coloured metal box with an inset containing five compartments with doors: a central door with two smaller doors on either side - these all appear to be made of similar metalic material - both the inside edges of this box, and the edges of the door-closures, have a crimped pattern - the central compartment, which is open, has a rasied piece inside that resembles a quarter sphere: this is a bowl/cup on the reverse, used for mixing paste made from a collyrium fragment - each door also appears to have looped handles that resemble an exaggerated Greek Omega symbol
Figure 4: Reconstructed eye box with view of central compartment

Stopping in a place such as Malton a peripatetic eye healer from York (such as Julius Alexander) might have pulled out of his travelling pack a brass medicine box. As the locals looked on the lid would have been retracted revealing five small compartments containing a range of embossed and hardened collyria (Figure 4).

A Brass coloured rectangular tray with a narrow folded back edge along the top and bottom - this is the reverse of a reconstructed Roman eye healers box - on the right is a inset cup-shaped bowl with surrounding space - overal this bowl takes up about third of the total width
Figure 5: Cup-shaped depression on underside of reconstructed eye box

A collyrium would then have been carefully selected according to the patient’s needs with a small piece being cut off. After crushing the collyrium fragment on a stone palate using a brass probe, the resulting powder would have been mixed with water, egg or milk as appropriate in the cup-shaped depression on the underside of the box to produce a paste for application to the eye (Figure 5).

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Figure 1: A collyrium stamp from Kenchester ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Figure 2: A collyrium stamp from Wroxeter ©Nick Summerton

Figure 3: A collyrium stamp from York ©York Museums Trust

Visit: York Museums Trust

Figure 4: Reconstructed eye box with view of central compartment ©Nick Summerton

Figure 5: Cup-shaped depression on underside of reconstructed eye box ©Nick Summerton

The Romans at Cawthorn

An aerial colour photograph showing a square of dry heathland with rounded corners (Ford D)- there is a perimeter path as well as two paths that link to a central crossroads dividing the site into quarters - there is is also an opening onto a further irregular area of scrub to the top left (Camp C)- both sites are surrounded by dense woodland
Figure 2 – Overview of Fort D and Camp C looking south

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Cawthorn Camps is a fascinating – and enigmatic – site with the remains of a Roman camp in addition to two Roman forts, one of which had an annex. The earthen ramparts and gates are particularly well preserved.

During the 1920s it was excavated by the eminent archaeologist Sir Ian Richmond and his colleagues. He proposed that the earthworks had been constructed for training purposes between the late 1st century and the early 2nd century. But more recent work by Graham Lee and Pete Wilson has led to a reassessment of Cawthorn (Figure 1). It is now considered that it was an integral component of the Roman occupation of Yorkshire involving several building phases over a period of around 40 years.

A greyscale illustration of Cawthorn Camps showing a steep bank to the northern edge - there is a perimeter line highlighting the extent of these excavations - the site is in excess of 750m in length from South West to North East - each excavation is similar in size - these are labelled from West to East as follows: site D (square), site C (coffin-shaped), site A (rhombus), and site B (irregular rhombus)
Figure 1 – Plan of Cawthorn Camps showing recent excavation trenches

It is suggested that the first military structure constructed by the Roman forces was a temporary fort (D) (Figure 2). This would have been a rectangular enclosure with rounded corners and surrounded by a single ditch. Such forts typically had a headquarters building (principia) in the centre, flanked by a house for the commander (praetorium) on one side and one or more granaries (horrea) on the other. Most of the rest of the fort’s interior would have been taken up with ordered rows of barrack blocks.

An aerial colour photograph showing a square of dry heathland with rounded corners (Ford D)- there is a perimeter path as well as two paths that link to a central crossroads dividing the site into quarters - there is is also an opening onto a further irregular area of scrub to the top left (Camp C)- both sites are surrounded by dense woodland
Figure 2 – Overview of Fort D and Camp C looking south

Some years later a re-occupation of (D) entailed digging an outer Punic ditch (Figure 3). This was constructed with a gently sloping inner wall and a steep outer wall: easy to jump in but tricky to get out! Importantly these two periods of use (probably around AD 80 and AD 120) match those for the fort at Lease Rigg a few miles north.

A colour photo from Cawthorn Camps showing a narrow path through thick grass, linking to another path at a crossroad - there are mature trees in the top right, and a waymarker that highlights the photos large scale
Figure 3 – The Punic ditch of Fort D

Roman camps had no fixed internal structures with troops being accommodated in tents. They were only occupied for a few days or weeks with the perimeter defences being less substantial in comparison with forts and topped with a row of sharpened stakes.

The camp at Cawthorn (C) is surrounded by a coffin shaped rampart and three clavicula-type gates can still be clearly seen (Figure 4). Claviculae were designed to force attackers to pass through the gateway sideways with their sword-arms exposed. There were various types of camp and (C) was probably a construction camp linked to the building of another temporary fort (A) to the east. The lack of any gates on the west side of the camp might relate to a continuing occupation of fort (D) when the camp was established. However, the second outer ditch of fort (D) broke through the defences of this camp, indicating that, by then, the camp had been abandoned.

A colour photo from Cawthorn Camps showing a narrow winding path through an area of rough heathland, with thick grass, heather, and gorse - along the top egde there is a band of mature trees that then leads into the distance at the right hand side
Figure 4 – A clavicula-type gate of Camp C

Fort A was a substantial structure with a deep ditch (4.5 metres X 2.1 metres) and double claviculae. The 1930s excavations identified post holes and some vestiges of timber ramparts in addition to the possible remains of a platform for a ballista in the south east corner. Also, a prehistoric burial mound in the centre of the fort might have been remodelled by the Romans into a tribunal, from which senior officers could have addressed the troops.

Many Roman forts had attached annexes providing additional space for storage and accommodation (particularly for goods, animals and troops in transit) in addition to facilities such as workshops. At Cawthorn it seems highly likely that the earthworks east of fort (A) served as such an annex (B). There is also evidence for stone ovens and hearths in addition to turf-built structures linked to the Roman occupation within both fort (A) and annex (B).

Today Cawthorn still puzzles many historians and archaeologists. Questions remain about the routes followed by the troops to and from the site as well as the reason for choosing a location with such a poor water supply. There have also been few finds with no coins and only a minimal amount of pottery being unearthed. But it is important to appreciate that a Roman army on campaign made particular use of metal vessels – paterae – for cooking and eating. A fine example of a patera is Lucius’ Pan which has been marked with its owners name, hence Lucius, this is often on display at Malton Museum.

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As part of our new range of tours this year, Malton Museum will be offering visits around Beadlam Villa and Cawthorn Roman Camps. Look out for details on social media, our website and in the local press. Both tours will be led by our ‘Blogger’ Nick Summerton.

Figure 1: Plan of Cawthorn Camps showing recent excavation trenches ©English Heritage

Figure 2: Overview of Fort D and Camp C looking south ©English Heritage

Figure 3: The Punic ditch of Fort D ©Nick Summerton

Figure 4: A clavicula-type gate of Camp C ©Nick Summerton

Find out more about Cawthorn Camps from

North York Moors, National Park

Historic England

Britain Express

The Roman Villas around Malton and Norton

A colour photo showing extensive walls from Beadlam Villa surrounded by a wooden fence - some sections of wall are complete up to a fourth course - there is rough grass within and immeditely around these ruins - beyond this fencing there is well maintained grass bank area surrounded by trees
Figure 3 – Overview of the villa at Beadlam

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It might be a surprise to you just how many Roman villas there are around Malton and Norton – do you know which features define a Roman building as a villa…?

To Pliny the Younger, writing in the 1st Century AD, the Latin word ‘villa’ simply meant a country house where he could escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. But ancient East Yorkshire was a long way – both geographically and culturally – from Italy so we need to tread carefully in using the term ‘villa’ to describe Roman structures that might be unearthed within the local countryside.

Professor Martin Millett has proposed that – in Britain – rural buildings might be classified as villas if they are rectangular in plan, make use of stone, have solid floors (sometimes with mosaics) in addition to hypocausts and baths. Using these criteria, it seems that at least twenty-one Roman villas can be identified within a 30km radius around Malton (and a dozen within 20km) including examples at Hovingham, Langton and Beadlam.

A greyscale copy of a report containing plan drawings, an introduction, and a description with a key to numbered elements within these plan drawings
Figure 1 – The 1745 report of the finds at Hovingham

During the construction of ornamental gardens, streams and fish-ponds at Hovingham Hall in 1745 the remains of a Roman bath-suite were found complete with hypocausts (Figure 1) . Some 74 metres west of this structure another building was unearthed containing a mosaic floor and, more recently, a Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) survey has identified a further rectangular building, 45 metres by 23 metres.

A black and white photo showing a complex of archaeological features - there is also a car parked nearby which gives the photo a reference to its 1930's origin - also in the foreground there is also the end of a narrow gauge railway track
Figure 2 – Overview of the excavations at Langton

At Langton at least two Roman villas existed and the one located east of the village was comprehensively excavated in the 1930s. A particularly significant discovery was the remains of a building termed a ‘dwelling house’ with hypocausts and the vestiges of a mosaic pavement (Figure 2). A small bath house was also found 55 metres further east.

A colour photo showing extensive walls from Beadlam Villa surrounded by a wooden fence - some sections of wall are complete up to a fourth course - there is rough grass within and immeditely around these ruins - beyond this fencing there is well maintained grass bank area surrounded by trees
Figure 3 – Overview of the villa at Beadlam

The villa at Beadlam is the only local example where the walls are still exposed above ground (Figures 3 & 4). It was discovered in 1964 by ploughing and then carefully examined over the subsequent 15 years. Important finds include mosaics (possibly made by the same individual as the example at Hovingham), wall plaster, channelled hypocausts and wall heating flues in addition to the remains of a large number of glass drinking vessels.

A colour photo showing a largely complete terracotta box flue section- this is inset into a stone wall - there is rough grass in both the foreground and background - another more complete wall can be seen behind this section of ruined wall
Figure 4 – Box flue tile in the wall of the heated mosaic room at Beadlam

Beadlam is a complicated structure with three main ranges – north, east and west – and eleven distinct buildings. The northern section is visible today and, although the mosaic discovered there has been moved to storage in Helmsley, it is a splendid site to visit (Figure 5). A bathhouse was also found at the end of the west wing and this area can still be detected as an earthwork.

A section of Roman mosaic with a guilloche pattern: this pattern resembles platted strings or woven willow - in this example each strand has three light coloured stirpes between two dark coloured stripes, giving it a strong visual impact
Figure 5 – The edging of the mosaic at Beadlam

In common with the Langton dwelling house, the north range at Beadlam was fronted by a veranda and it seems likely that both buildings had upper stories too. They were probably mixed farms with a considerable quantity of animal bones being found at Langton and possible stock yards at Beadlam. There were also corn-drying ovens and Beadlam boasted a small mill too. Many villas were not simply agricultural establishments and often accommodated other manufacturing and processing activities. Two large hoards of iron tools have been unearthed at Beadlam and there was metal working taking place at Langton.

At both Langton and Beadlam there is archaeological evidence of structures that existed prior to the villas being built, suggesting that the occupants may have been Romanised locals. The finding of bronze writing styli implies that they might have been literate too. It is quite conceivable that such individuals could have held positions of importance in Malton where they also took their produce to market. However, it is important to appreciate that, across Britain, many villa residents would have been tenants while some owners were not British or even lived in Britain.

Based on the coin, glass and pottery finds at Hovingham, Langton and Beadlam it is clear that they were all occupied from the mid second century until well into the late 4th or early 5th centuries. This prolonged period of use – with many of the embellishments to the living accommodation taking place in the 4th century – perhaps reflects confidence in the security provided by the troops at Malton and the signal stations along the coast. Interestingly a cavalry spur and a Roman military strap end have been found at Beadlam.

As part of our new range of tours this year, Malton Museum will be offering visits around Beadlam Villa and Cawthorn Roman Camps. Look out for details on social media, our website and in the local press. Both tours will be led by our ‘Blogger’ Nick Summerton.

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Figure 1: The 1745 report of the finds at Hovingham ©Sir William Worsley

Figure 2: Overview of the excavations at Langton ©Malton Museum

Figure 3: The edging of the mosaic at Beadlam ©English Heritage

Figure 4: Box flue tile in the wall of the heated mosaic room at Beadlam ©Nick Summerton

Figure 5: Overview of the villa at Beadlam ©Nick Summerton

Find out more about Beadlam on wikipedia: wikipedia

Roman Gardens and Wellbeing

A central blockwork path lined either side by ruined pillars, mostly only a few inches high, and adjacent lawned areas with a variety of borders
Figure 1: The Roman Garden in Chester

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Much like many of our modern gardens, Roman gardens were also designed to be a place of relaxation, that encouraged wildlife, as well as providing food, herbs, and medicine.

Private gardens were popular with the Romans producing fruit, vegetables and herbs plus, on occasion, honey and wine. A wide range of plants were also available to the Romans, and Pliny the Elder lists 70 cultivated for food or cooking, 39 used for making wines or cordials and 16 grown to encourage bees. In addition, he mentions 101 items with medicinal properties such as lettuce to help with sleep.

Pliny also wrote how his work had been ‘aided by Antonius Castor, who in our time enjoyed the highest reputation for an intimate acquaintance with this branch of knowledge. I had the opportunity of visiting his garden, in which, though he had passed his hundredth year, he cultivated vast numbers of plants with the greatest care. Though he had reached this great age, he had never experienced any bodily ailment, and neither his memory nor his natural vigour had been the least impaired by the lapse of time‘.

A large lawned area surrounded by broad, well kept, low level, topairy hedging and broad gravelled paths - There are also other styles of garden on each side
Figure 2: The Roman Garden at Fishbourne

There is obviously an overlap between the different purposes of plants (and plant-related products) with some, such as bay laurel or honey, having both culinary and medical uses. However, aside from providing medicinal plants and herbs, Roman gardens probably had a much broader health role in encouraging movement and enabling access to ‘pure air’ (incorporating elements such as air movement, natural sounds, aromas, sunlight and vistas) in addition to enhancing psychological wellbeing. All these elements are still relevant today.

Significant physical work is involved in establishing and maintaining a Roman garden and, in his list of exercises, the Roman physician Galen specifically advocated ‘digging, bearing burdens, pruning vines and reaping‘. But it is also clear that Roman gardens were designed to encourage movement both around the perimeter and in between the individual beds. Pliny the Younger describes tree-lined pathways and avenues edged by box hedges at his villa in Tuscany. Garden paths have also been identified archeologically from a number of villa sites including Frocester Court in Gloucestershire . The Roman architect Vitruvius even provided details on the construction of sand-covered walkways or ambulationes incorporating drains and a charcoal base to ensure the surface remained dry. Pergolas were often included in Roman gardens to provide shaded walkways.

An enclosed courtyard area, with a high columned veranda on all sides - adjacent to these columns are a large number of fountains and statues - within this courtyard there is a broad cross-shaped pathway with formal planting in each quarter
Figure 3: A Roman garden in Pompeii

In relation to wholesome ‘pure air’ Pliny the Younger emphasised the views, breezes and smells at his garden villas, including commenting on a ‘terrace scented with violets‘. Other aromatic plants that would have been found in Roman gardens include camomile, lavender, rosemary and roses.

Enabling psychological wellbeing and developing tranquillity were an important focus for the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his physician Galen during the course of their Antonine Plague. Today, as we continue to cope with the after-effects of COVID-19, it is worth bearing in mind that there is good evidence for the positive effects of any gardening in reducing anxiety, depression, stress and rumination (brooding) in addition to enhancing self-esteem. There are also the associated mental health benefits of being exposed to natural light.

An autumnal scene showing ruined columns, grass banks, and a lawned area with two small trees - fallen leaves are scttered across this scene
Figure 4: The Roman Garden being developed at Aldborough

Gardening is about being in contact with nature and, as well as the flora, the Romans encouraged birds into their gardens as evidenced by bird baths and feeders. Fishponds and, occasionally, aviaries have been identified at a several sites and some Roman gardens were adorned with fresco paintings showing greenery, flowers, birds and blue sky. Again, there is a wealth of modern research evidence for the benefits of natural settings in their own right for enhancing psychological wellbeing.

The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the significant adverse impacts on many people’s mental health as a result of social isolation and I am sure this must have been the case for some of our predecessors too during the time of their plague. Today gardens and gardening are an excellent way to connect with others in a safe space outdoors, especially if it is combined with some immersion in the past. Roman gardens are being reconstructed at various sites including Aldborough, Chester, Fishbourne, Pompeii and many more – well worth a trip!

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Figure 1: The Roman Garden in Chester. ©Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Figure 2: The Roman Garden at Fishbourne. ©David Spender, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Figure 3: A Roman Garden in Pompeii: ©I Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Figure 4: The Roman Garden being developed at Aldborough ©Nick Summerton

Petillius Cerialis and the Brigantes

A photo showing a gatehouse structure with extensive wooden defensive walls either side
Figure 2 – Reconstruction that can be seen at Lunt, nr Coventry

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When Petillius Cerialis arrived in Britain as the new governor it was not his first trip to the island. Ten years earlier, as commander of the legio IX Hispania, he had been badly mauled by Boudica and, according to the Roman author Tacitus, while trying to assist the citizens of Colchester, he ‘was stopped by the victorious Britons and routed. The entire infantry force was massacred, while Petillius Cerialis escaped to the camp with his cavalry and sheltered behind its defences’.

In his new posting he also knew that one of his first jobs was to deal with the Brigantes tribe in the North: a task that had also fallen to his elder brother, Caesius Nascica, a few years previously. In relation to this earlier engagement Tacitus makes the ‘helpful’ comment that ‘a battle fought by a regular brigade under Caesius Nasica had a satisfactory ending‘. Cerialis would certainly have appreciated that he had quite a hill to climb when he stepped ashore in AD 71!

At the time, the territory of the Brigantes was extensive, covering North Yorkshire, Lancashire and parts of the Lake district. It was most likely an amalgam of several tribes that had been brought together into a slightly shaky confederation. In the early years after the Roman invasion of Britain it was ruled by the powerful Queen Cartimandua.

An engraving, showinga group of Romans and Caratus and his followers standing either side of Queen Cartmandua as she negotiates with the Romans
Figure 1 – Queen Cartimandua handing over Caratacus to the Romans,

The relationship between the Brigantes and the Romans had wavered over the years. At the start all appeared quite rosy with the Brigantes adopting a pro-Roman stance, importing luxury Roman goods from the continent and even handing over the rebel Catuvellauni tribal leader Caratacus to the occupying forces (Figure 1).

But there were also some internal tensions between the different Brigantian factions that surfaced from time-to-time. The most serious arose from the estrangement of Cartimandua and her husband Venutius. Tacitus takes up the story: “Venutius, who, quite apart from a violent character and a hatred of all things Roman, was goaded to fury by a personal feud with Queen Cartimandua… She tired of Venutius, who was her consort, and gave her hand and the kingdom to his armour-bearer, one Vellocatus. This scandal immediately shook the royal house to its foundations. The discarded husband could rely on the support of the Brigantian people, the lover upon the infatuation of the queen and her ruthless cruelty. So Venutius summoned help from outside, and a simultaneous revolt on the part of the Brigantes themselves reduced Cartimandua to a position of extreme danger, in which she appealed for Roman assistance. In the event, our cohorts and cavalry regiments did succeed, at the cost of desperate fighting, in rescuing the queen from a tight corner. Venutius inherited the throne, and we the fighting“.

A photo showing a gatehouse structure with extensive wooden defensive walls either side
Figure 2 – Reconstruction that can be seen at Lunt, nr Coventry

Cerialis arrived in Britain with a newly raised legion (II Adiutrix) and headed up to Lincoln to join the IX Hispania. Leaving the II Adiutrix to settle in at Lincoln he then advanced to York and Malton with his former command, crossing the Humber at Brough. The arrival of Cerialis in Yorkshire marked the start of the Roman association with Malton. The location for the fort on slightly raised ground overlooking the River Derwent would certainly have helped to control an important route along the Vale of Pickering and the eastern approaches to York (Figure 2).

A photo taken from the top of a ramparts, with some immature trees scattered upon it, and looking towards a defensive ditch
Figure 3 – The ramparts of the stronghold of the Brigantes at Stanwick, North Yorks

Cerialis’ subsequent three years of campaigning into Brigantia from the East with the legio IX Hispania were supported by the legio XX Valeria Victrix based at Chester and commanded by Julius Agricola, marching up the Western side of the Pennines. The two forces might have eventually met in the Carlisle area and even advanced a short way into Southern Scotland too. But it seems very unlikely that the campaign ever climaxed in a single decisive confrontation. Tacitus describes: “a series of battles – some of them by no means bloodless”.

A photo showing an 'L' shaped base of a sustantial stone wall, with grass banks on either side, and tree cover to the left hand side
Figure 4 – The remains of the Roman walls at Aldborough

Venutius and Cartimandua disappear from history and the former stronghold of the Brigantes at Stanwick (Figure 3) was replaced by a new civitas at Isurium Brigantum (Aldborough) (Figure 4). Cerialis left Britain in AD 74 with Agricola becoming governor three years later. Agricola’s daughter, Julia, married the author Tacitus.

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Figure 1: Queen Cartimandua handing over Caratacus to the Romans, as illustrated on at 18th Century engraving by F. Bartolozzi © Wikimedia Commons

Find out more about Queen Cartimandua on Wikipedia

Find out more about Caratacus on Wikipedia

Figure 2: The first fort at Malton would have looked very similar to the reconstruction that can be seen at Lunt, nr Coventry © Nick Summerton.

Find out more about Lunt Roman Fort

Figure 3: The ramparts of the stronghold of the Brigantes at Stanwick, North Yorks © Nick Summerton.

Find out more about Stanwick from English Heritage

Figure 4: The remains of the Roman walls at Aldborough (Isurium Brigantum) © Nick Summerton.

Find out more about Roman Alborough from English Heritage

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 ©

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

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… 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

Roman Cavalry in Malton

An irregular half of a carved stone slab with incomplete text carved in large letters covering most of it's face
Figure 1 – Roman carved dedication slab

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There appears to be a lot of grandeur associated with Roman cavalry, as we can see from some very finely decorated cavalry sports helmets – read on to find out more

Malton has enjoyed a long love affair with horses and racing. It was once dubbed the Newmarket of the North and, according to local legend, it was the Romans who first introduced horse racing to the town.

During the excavation of the Roman civilian settlement (vicus) in 1970, a dedication slab was unearthed (figure 1) dated to the middle of the second century AD. Parts of the lettering are missing, but the complete text probably read:

T or P (?)




D ♥ D

This is translated as `Candidus, prefect of the Ala Picentiana gave (this) as a gift`. Above the `C` there is also the bottom section of another letter, perhaps T or P, suggesting that Candidus was a cognomen (the third name of a Roman citizen).

Within the Roman Empire the ala were auxiliary units composed entirely of cavalry. The name is Latin for a wing and derives from the use of horsemen on the flanks of the army. Unlike the legions, the auxiliary troops were drawn from the free inhabitants of the Empire who were not Roman citizens, termed peregrini.

By the time of the Malton inscription, there were about 70 auxiliary regiments in Britain amounting to three-quarters of the military force on the island. In addition to eleven alae there were also auxiliary infantry cohorts and mixed units.

A Roman carved stone showing a horse and rider jumping over a variety of people who appear to have been in a battle, as well as various shields and weapons
Figure 2 – Bridgeness Stone showing a Roman mounted auxiliary trooper

Originally auxiliary troops would have been led by their own local chiefs but gradually this changed with most ala prefects being Romans by the second century AD. Such individuals would have moved up the ladder of military promotion from, perhaps, a previous position as military tribune within a legion.

The riders of the Ala Picentiana were recruited from the inhabitants of Gaul, although Candidus would, most probably, have been born into a well-connected Roman family. The five-hundred strong unit served in Germany first before being transferred across to Britain. Stationing the ala at Malton might have been linked to the need to provide the 6th Roman legion (based at York) with a cavalry wing.

One reason for a trooper joining an auxiliary unit was to acquire Roman citizenship by serving for twenty-five years. Bronze diplomas were issued to grant such citizenship, with one copy being given to a veteran and another retained by the authorities. Just outside Sheffield a diploma was ploughed up in 1760 and refers to several units, including Malton`s Ala Picentiana. It is translated as `to the cavalrymen…who have served twenty-five or more years and have been honourably discharged, whose names are written below, citizenship for themselves, their children and descendants, and the right of legal marriage`.

Little digging has taken place inside the walls of the fort at Malton, but a geophysical survey has revealed double lines of barrack blocks. Based on excavations at the cavalry fort at Wallsend it suggested that the troopers occupied one range with their horses being stabled in the adjacent rooms.

Roman auxiliary cavalry riders were usually heavily covered in armour and furnished with short lances, javelins, shields and long swords. Military strap fittings (from horse harnesses), a bone sword handle, copper alloy scale armour, chain mail and iron spearheads have all been unearthed at Malton. The Bridgeness stone (Figure 2) from the Antonine Wall (dating to the same period as the Malton inscription) portrays a fully equipped auxiliary cavalryman trampling and decapitating naked barbarians.

A highly detailed bronze helmet depicting a face with narrow gaps for the wearer to see out through the masks face
Figure 3 – Ribchester Helmet
An ornate calvelry helmet with detail face and pointed hat decorated with a griffin like animal
Figure 4 – Crosby Garrett Helmet

Within the Roman Empire ala units enjoyed considerable prestige and their members were also better paid than auxiliary infantry. Dressed up in parade armour – including splendid helmets of the type found at Ribchester and Crosby Garrett (Figures 3 & 4) – they would have put on spectacular public displays showing the skill and speed of the riders. Perhaps there is a lot of truth in the Malton legend about Roman horse racing!

Figure 1: The Malton Ala Picentiana inscription © Malton Museum

Figure 2: Detail of a legionary tablet c.142 AD found at Bridgeness. It shows a Roman mounted auxiliary trooper. ©Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Find out more about the Bridgeness Slab on Wikipedia

Figure 3: Ribchester cavalry sports helmet, bronze. ©Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

Find our more about Ribchester on Wikipedia

Figure 4: Crosby Garrett Helmet, a copper alloy Roman cavalry helmet dating from the late 2nd or early 3rd century AD © Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic


Two sides of a Roman coin depicting Carausius
Figure 1: Coin with an image of a tough-looking Carausius

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You may not have heard of Carausius, so read on to find out more about who he was.

Political chaos of the type seen around the world this year occurs in what appear to be the most sophisticated of regimes, including within the ancient world.

Following a particularly unsettled period in Roman History, Diocletian was proclaimed Emperor in 284 AD. To secure his place he appointed a trusted colleague, Maximian, as co-ruler with a remit to look after the Western half of the empire, including Britain.

One immediate task that faced Maximian was stemming the pirate raids along the coasts of northern France and Belgium. He engaged a distinguished soldier, Mausaeus Carausius, to deal with the situation, giving him command of the Roman fleet.

However, although Carausius was remarkably successful, his tactics were somewhat irregular. Rather than attacking the pirates prior to any raids he waited and intercepted them on their return journeys, relieving them of any booty. Also, he did not seem particularly keen to restore items to their original owners or to pass any treasure on to the Emperor. It was not long before Carausius’ creative approach to policing the English Channel came to the attention of Maximian, who summoned Carausius to headquarters for an explanation.

Sensing that the game was up Carausius responded by setting himself up in Britain as a third emperor (figure 1). He even issued a coin confirming this new status on which he is portrayed alongside Diocletian and Maximian surrounded by the words ‘CARAUSIUS ET FRATRES SUI’ …Carausius and his brothers! (figure 2)

One side of a Roman Coin deicptiing from right to left: Carausius, Diocletian, and Maximian
Figure 2: Coin of Carausius from a hoard discovered in Wales

There can be little doubt that Carausius was a very shrewd individual. He clearly had already gained the respect of the army in addition to the support of many Gallic merchants. But, to maintain and strengthen his position, he must have recognised the need to do much more.

During the third century, the money supply reaching Britain had become increasingly precarious with the denarius containing less than a sixth of the silver than had been the case when the Romans had first arrived in 43 AD. Cunningly, and very soon after taking control of Britain, Carausius set up mints in London and Colchester producing gold and silver coins of superb quality.

Restoring the silver currency standard was also probably a reflection of a broader aim to associate himself with traditional Roman values and virtues. He added the names Marcus Aurelius to his own and the reverses of some of this coins bore inscriptions from the great poet of the Augustan period, Virgil such as ‘EXPECTATE VENI’ (Come, O expected one) or RSR (The Golden Age is back) . Many other pieces also make references to peace, plenty, happiness or restoration.

At Malton, the North-East gate of the fort was probably rebuilt by Carausius, based on the finds from the 1927-30 excavations (including 23 coins of the Carausian period). Down the road at Brough it seems likely that there was also significant building activity at the same time. Elsewhere there is evidence that new defensive shore forts were being established at Porchester while others at Brancaster and Lympne were being restored or repaired.

Undoubtedly all this construction work would have made the inhabitants of places such as Malton feel more secure. There might also have been a sense that Britain had ‘taken back control’ rather than being subject to Imperial edicts emanating from the far-flung Roman administrative centres at Trier and Milan. Perhaps the splendid decoration of the town house in the vicus at Malton reflects the improved confidence and circumstances for the residents of Northern Britain.

However, after seven years, Carausius came to a sticky end, being assassinated by his finance minister Allectus. By 296 the game was up for Allectus too, who was killed in a battle with Asclepiodotus, the praetorian prefect. As beautifully illustrated on a large golden medallion unearthed in Arras a hundred years ago, Diocletian’s new co-emperor Constantius (the father of Constantine the Great) was welcomed into London and Britain returned to the Roman Empire.

Figure 1: Coin with an image of a tough-looking Carausius and the lettering IMP (emperor) before his name. The inscription on the reverse refers to the 4th Roman legion that provided him with troops. ML is the mark of the London mint.

© Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., CC BY-SA 3.0,

Figure 2: Coin of Carausius from a hoard discovered in Wales. On this piece he is shown on the left next to Diocletian (centre) and Maximian. ©National Museum of Wales

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