Category Archives: Education

A Guide to the History of the Legions of the Roman Army

Book Review – The Complete Roman Legions

The Complete Roman Legions

Rome’s Army and its famous elite Legions are one of the best known aspects of the Republic and Empire that had such an influence on our history. The Legions were units of well trained, well armoured and well-disciplined fighting men, who helped to create and to defend the Republic and Empire of Rome over many centuries. The Complete Roman Legions, by Nigel Pollard and Joanne Berry, published by Thames and Hudson, provides an excellent introduction to the current state of our knowledge of the Roman Legions.

The introduction to the book gives an excellent explanation of what the Legions were and how they developed over time. While the Legions were not the only soldiers employed in the Roman armies, they were the best organised and equipped, enjoying considerable privileges as elite professional soldiers. After introducing the history of the Legions from the earliest Republic and their expansion as an instrument of politics and civil war, the book gives a narrative history of each Legion, based on historical and archaeological evidence.

Reading the long series of descriptions of the origin, bases and major battles of each Legion, it is difficult not to be impressed by the scale and complexity of the organisation of the Roman Army. One of many interesting aspects revealed by the book is the career path of Legionary Centurions, who appear to have been recruited from a higher social class than ordinary soldiers and were regularly transferred to serve in different and unrelated Legions as a junior officer class with a high status and considerable authority in military and civilian life. The last two chapters of the book give a brief account of the changes to the organisation of the Legions in the later Roman period and their often obscure later histories, involving surprising continuities, occasional disappearances and in most cases an unrecorded end after some centuries of existence.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book are the sub texts that raise questions that are left unanswered even by such a carefully laid out and well-illustrated work as this is. There is little in the book about the day to day organisation and communication between the Legions and the political and military authorities of the Empire. The involvement of the Legions in civil wars in support of one or another aspirant to the Imperial power must have challenged loyalties and ultimately the coherence of the military system. In setting out such a comprehensive list of the known facts about the Legions of Rome, the book ultimately lays bare the limits of our knowledge of the full history of the Legions as part of the story of Rome. Of the Roman Legions in the 4th and 5th century very little appears to be known, or represented in historical texts and archaeological evidence. One of the real problems for this late Antique period is tracing the transition to the new forms of political and social structures that emerge from the Roman Empire in the Early Roman period. The absence of evidence for the decline of one of the dominant institutions of the Roman period is clearly a major issue in this historical problem. Perhaps one answer lies in the strength of the evidence for the organisation of the Legions in the period from the 1st to the late 3rd century when the iconography and history of the Roman Legion is most familiar to us from contemporary culture.

The forts, weapons and armour of Legionary are all well attested in contemporary evidence, most strikingly illustrated in the carved tombstones of Legionaries that record both career histories but also express genuine affection from family members who are often also serving soldiers and from comrades. The establishment of many of the Legions in permanent fortified bases, which became towns and cities as generations of Legionaries served, settled and even provided the next phase of recruits to their home unit over spans of centuries. The narratives for each Legion in this book suggest that the sheer longevity and organisational sophistication of the Army meant that the units as a component of the community, the root and driving force of community formation not an alien force imposed on it. This is surely a fruitful line of enquiry into the whole structure and functioning of the Roman Empire, which has often been viewed as a coherent super-state, whose armies have been seen as mobile and capably of being disposed to any region or struggle that occurred within its boundaries. The Army also appears in conventional narratives to be rootless and fickle, lending its support here and there to one usurper or another without any sense of what this meant in practice to their organisation, supply and recruitment in the long term.

From this book we can see that the Legions evolved into a network of strong regional forces who lent detachments of their men to the causes they supported but remained rooted in their home bases where they derived their strength and a local and increasingly hereditary supply of recruits. Eventually the close integration of the Legionary system into the evolving Empire required a re-organisation to provide precisely the sort of mobile and rootless forces that the fragmenting Empire and its warlords required and the old system was superseded, living on only in the occasional continuity of unit names, given to much smaller and radically differently organised forces. These existed among units with titles that reflect the ad-hoc recruitment for the partisan support of various usurpers, break away Empires and units recruited from the leaking borders of the Empire.

The Complete Roman Legions - inside the book
The Complete Roman Legions – inside the book

The book is in a large format (review is of the hard back version) with 224 pages and contains tabulated information inserted within the text as well as excellent block sections with supplementary information and it has many good colour illustrations (212 illustration, 204 in colour). There is a useful glossary, a comprehensive guide to further detailed reading and it is well indexed.

This is a well-produced volume which is essential as a basic guide to the structure and historical development of the Legions of Rome which would suit a general reader as well as a specialist looking for a handbook to the data and sources for regions which are perhaps less familiar. As a general guide to the Roman Legions it would be an essential book for anyone studying the period, or with a general interest in this significant aspect of a Roman past we all share.

GM  26.05.14

Printing a medley of Margate stories

Image of Margate Medley publication
Margate Medley ready to go!

We’ve been able to use our publishing skills to help out with a project organised by Margate Civic Society,

A while ago we bought a nifty laser printer that is able to produce small booklets automatically, letting us produce short run publications for ourselves and others. Its a little labour intensive, as we have to fold and staple each copy by hand and then press them for a few hours. A bit of an old school publishing practice.

This week the Trust has been rolling out a new publication from our presses on behalf of the Margate Civic Society, printing and binding copies of a small publication called Margate Medley, packed with snippets from Margate’s history. It has a short article by the Trust’s Director on the history of Margate Pier, based on the talk she gave at our 25th Anniversary conference last year. There are many other interesting pieces on historical sites and events that have contributed to Margate’s unique character.

The book is for sale at £2.50 from Margate Civic Society, or at the Time Ball celebration events. Proceeds from the sales will support the Civic Society and their Fund Raising for the Time Ball project and other local activities.

History and Archaeology Day at Upton School, Broadstairs

The Trust were invited back to Upton School in Broadstairs on Wednesday 26th February for a day of archaeological activities for the school’s History day.

Teaching about the equipment of ta Roman soldier
Teaching about the equipment of a Roman soldier

Adam and Lauren of the Trust ran four sessions on the archaeology of the Roman period over the day, starting with an overview of the history of Roman settlement in Britain and an experience of the everyday life of the Roman soldier, the first of the Roman people to arrive in Kent.

Picture of a weary young Roman legionary
A weary Roman legionary

Volunteers from among the children didn’t just get a taste for the commitment to long service, but also had a sense of the gruelling routine of marching in full armour and a pack full of equipment; an experience that has been compared to carrying one of your friends around on your back with the weight of a frozen chicken on your head.

The archaeologists explained how the evidence for our understanding of Roman life is gathered from the remains that are left behind, and what a wide range of equipment to excavate, record and then report discoveries is needed.

Children finding out about archaeological equipment
Finding out about archaeological equipment

Eventually it was time for the children to Dig and Discover for themselves, excavating an artefact then carrying out their own analysis of the find using one of the Trusts specially designed recording sheets. Each of the junior archaeologists could have a first-hand experience of their Roman past from the real Roman objects that could be investigated and drawn.

Learning about Roman artefacts
Learning about Roman artefacts

It wasn’t just the Roman period that got the archaeological treatment, our Anglo-Saxon skeleton activity and costume were put to use by the teachers. Using the skeleton and replica items, they could examine how investigation of the rich culture of Anglo-Saxon burials can teach us about this important period of our history.

Drawing and recording Roman finds
Drawing and recording Roman finds

Our opportunity to introduce the children of Upton school to archaeological investigation has been a great way to use the rich resources the Trust has available and give a hands on experience of the past. We are grateful for the opportunity to share our interest with the next generation of archaeological investigators.

Mortarium mystery revealed – #MuseumWeek #AskThe Curator

Mortaria Mixup
Mortaria Mixup

Tuesday’s curatorial conundrum from the Virtual Museum of Thanet’s Archaeology is finally answered.

The two questions we asked were; What on earth is it? and Who made it?, the answers to both can be found by looking at the pictures.

The pictures we posted were of a type of Roman mixing bowl, called a Mortarium. The example we have in our collection was found in the excavation of the Roman Villa at Abbey Farm, Minster in Thanet. Two of the sections of the image show the stamps on the rim that allow us to identify the manufacturer, although part of the stamp is damaged and part of the name is unreadable.

The mortarium was made in the factory of MATUGENUS, the name shown in two parts in the first stamp. The second stamp reads FECIT, that is ‘he made it’ in Latin.

Manufactururs stamp on Roman Mortarium
The stamp reads MATUG ENUS in two parts

Matugenus is a well known manufacturer, working near Verulamium, the Roman town near St.Albans in Hertfordshire between 80 and 125AD. Stamps tell us that Matugenus was the son of an earlier maker of mortaria, Albinus.

These heavy clay mixing bowls with their distinctive thick lipped pouring spouts were covered on their inner surface with find grits, embedded in the dense yellowish brown fabrics of the clays they were made from.

In the case of the vessel from Minster, the grits had been worn down so far the surface was nearly flat, and it is very likely the base of the vessel had been almost rubbed through, allowing it to break and leaving a large hole in base before it was finally smashed and cast with other rubbish into the outer boundary ditch to the north of the villa. The sherds of the vessel had not moved far and were found in a tight group that allowed the vessel to be nearly completely reconstructed after the dig.

Matugenus made this Mortarium - it says so on the tin
Matugenus made this Mortarium – it says so on the tin

Ramsgate’s Roman Past – Museum Memories

This Roman Beaker features in the group of Roman pots that currently forms the mastheads of our social media pages.

Roman colour coated Beaker, decorated with white painted lattice pattern. Possibly manufactured in Gaul, 3rd or 4th century, found in Ramsgate 2007.

Found in a grave excavated in Ramsgate, it is one of a group of finds with great significance to understanding the Roman occupation of Thanet and Ramsgate’s ancient role as a sea port. Located at the eastern limit of an ancient track that followed the Isle’s central chalk ridge, this is the easternmost of a series of small Roman cemeteries that once lined the road.

More remarkable was the survival of the intact vessels on the small archaeological site, despite the demolition of the buildings above and the use of a large toothed mechanical excavator bucket to grub out the foundations of the building that stood above it.

Despite the discoveries made on large scale excavations that have been carried out more recently, this small excavation was located in a perfect place to fill in the physical details of several antiquarian references and observations in the area which can not now be verified as the finds and records have been dispersed or lost.

Perhaps the story of greater human interest held by this vessel are the impressions of the fingers of someone who grasped the body of the vessel before the clay had dried and left a lasting memorial of their otherwise unrecorded existence on this beautiful vessel.

The vessels and the other finds from this site form a key part of the collection of artefacts the Trust holds and uses as part of the teaching material of the Virtual Museum. The excavation remains a milestone in our history of archaeological discoveries which have added to our knowledge of Thanet’s distant past.

Understanding Anglo-Saxon ideas about life and death

Book review – Signals of Belief in Early England

An interesting collection of studies has been added to the Anglo-Saxon section of the Trust’s archaeological library.

Cover of the book Signals of Belief
Signals of Belief

Edited by professor Martin Carver, Alex Sanmark and Sarah Semple, Signalsof Belief explores the history and character of ‘pagan’ Anglo-Saxon belief before and after Christian ideas began to spread after Augustine’s mission to covert the English arrived in 597 AD, The subject is significant to the archaeology of Thanet because of the number of important Anglo-Saxon cemeteries located on our chalk downland landscape. The Island would have been an important cultural community, linking the ideas of the people of north Germany and Scandinavia with what remained of the Roman world in Britain and on the continent.

Of course, Augustine’s mission sent by Pope Gregory the Great to convert the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was one of the most significant events in the story of ideas and beliefs in the Anglo-Saxon period and, the 8th century historian Bede tells us, the first connections between the two cultures took place somewhere in Thanet.
Although Bede gives us a general account of the progress of Christian ideas through the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms based on contemporary accounts, starting with the great King of Kent Aethelbert, we know little more than hints and glimpses of the beliefs held by the Anglo-Saxon people Augustine met.

What were their beliefs about life and death and what lay beyond the material world that held before the ideas of Christianity entered the culture so strongly? It is hard to discover because little pre-Christian written evidence survives that allows us to enter the minds of the people, and we can only examine the possible answers from the records left by observers from the outside.

In eight essays, Signals of Belief examines the hints given by contemporary Christian observers of the culture they met with in England and the clues that can be extracted from archaeological evidence and contemporary artistic representation. The essays look at the light that can be cast by poetry and other literary works and later documentation that discusses the beliefs of people of the German and Scandinavian lands where the Saxon English drew part of their ancestry. However most of this literary evidence all comes from a later period and has to be distilled by the writers into themes that they try to recognise in the early Saxon culture that are revealed by archaeological studies of the art and artefacts of the Anglo-Saxons.

There are attempts in some essays to take the hints and fit them with anthropological understandings of Shamanism and magical practise of some of the people of Scandinavia and Siberia. The book contains a useful discussion of how the ideas of Historians and archaeologists about the date and nature of Anglo-Saxons has developed over time, from the 16th to the 20th century, as they realised that the period after the Roman Empire and before the better known history of the later Medieval period had to be examined and researched using new ideas on the lifestyles and beliefs of the period.

Some of these attempts at projection, and conjectural reconstruction, are more convincing than others. A few pieces use a complicated style of language to say some fairly simple things; the Saxons used Horse imagery extensively; their halls may have had a religious as well as political role; they believed that all the things around them had some form of spiritual character. However some of the signals are louder than others, it is striking and important to Thanet’s archaeological and historical record that the ancient burial mounds of prehistory remained significant places to the Anglo-Saxons. However, a later writer warns that some of the anthropological ideas applied to the problem are spread so thinly as to have lost their significance.

In an afterword, the well-known historian of cultural beliefs Ronald Hutton warns that while the essays point the way to undertstanding the beliefs of the Anglo-Saxons, without new evidence we can never really know the internal world of their ideas. Using a telling analogy he compares the search to trying to find out the contents of a tin with no label. The discussions in the book are edging closer to a better description of the size and shape of the container, which could tell us something about the contents, but we do not have the tools to open the tin and really get to the inner contents. A lesson that applies to many historical periods that are known only through archaeological remains.

This book is not an easy read, the academic style of some of the pieces is quite dense, but it is an essential work for anyone who wants to explore in depth the inner life of the one of the population of one of the most important periods represented in Thanet’s archaeological record. Despite the dense texture the content is though provoking and stimulating and worth working through.

Image of the contents page of the book
Contents page of Signals of Belief

In the foreword Professor Martin Carver provides a coherent summary of the problems of understanding Anglo-Saxon mentalities from archaeological data and a good overview of the ideas that might lead to solutions, as well as adding insightful comments of his own. Ronald Hutton’s afterword brackets the essays with his warning on the potential limits of our knowledge and the potential of the research which is a sobering round off to the wide ranging content of the book.

Carver, M., Sanmark A., Semple S. (eds), 2010. Signals of Belief in Early England, Anglo-Saxon Paganism Revisited. Oxbow Books. Oxford.


Reading more about Anglo-Saxon Thanet

There’s a useful overview of Thanet’s Anglo-Saxon archaeology on our Virtual Museum website and wider overview in Ges Moody’s book The Isle of Thanet from Prehistory to the Norman Conquest. The landing of Augustine in Thanet and the effect on the contemporary Anglo-Saxon culture of Thanet is dealt with in depth in St Augustine’s First Footfall, also by Ges Moody and published by the Trust for Thanet Archaeology.

Out with the new, in with old – Find out about the past in 2014

De Bello Canzio stand at A4U 2013
Exploring the past through reenactment

Our new year message is that exploring your past is a rich and rewarding thing to do, helping you to understand the the way you live today.

There are many ways to get involved in exploring the past, finding out about the places that you live in and discovering something about your own place in the world. Who were your ancestors, who lived before you in your town or even your house?

The range can be wide, exploring the past over thousands of years or even just the the last few years, or even the last few minutes. You could simply ask how we all arrived here together at this moment to begin thinking about how our history affects our current place in the world.

There are so many ways to explore the past, through television programmes and the internet or even taking part in research through archives or in an archaeological dig. You can experience another  way of life through costume and re-enactment or visit a museum and see the objects from the past that have been preserved because of what they tell us about a way of life which may have changed forever.

Taking part in an archaeological dig
Taking part in an archaeological dig

You don’t need to have any technical skills, the only thing you need to do is listen to your own interests. Begin to explore the questions that you ask yourself about your own life and find some way to answer them through reading or taking part in some sort of activity. Begin with who, where what and most important, when.

There is always someone or some resource out there to help you discover what you want to know. You can work alone or better still  join a group of people with the same interests. If you don’t like or understand one way of exploration, find another way, most importantly find your own way.

Make it your resolution for 2014  to find out something about the past and what it could tell you about your own life.

Sharing our favourite historical resources

Who will write our history book cover
Who will write our history?

So here’s a recommendation for a start to your new historical year from our Deputy Director: Its a  book called ‘Who will write our History: Rediscovering a hidden archive from the Warsaw Ghetto’ by Samuel D. Kassow. The book is about people who made the effort to enquire about their own lives and circumstances under terrible conditions. In researching and recording the experience and history of those around them a dedicated group of researchers created a lasting record of their lives that endured the almost total destruction of everything around them. A very moving book about humanity in adversity, a great read. You can find a link to the book on Amazon here.

Tell us about your favourites

What are the books and resources that have had the most effect on your interest in the past? We would love to see your comments.


Trust for Thanet Archaeology – Review of the Year 2013 for IOTAS at Crampton Tower, Broadstairs

Ges talks about sites...
Ges talks about sites…

Emma and Ges, Director and Deputy Director of the Trust gave an update on the Trust’s activity for 2013 at Crampton Tower in Broadstairs for the Isle of Thanet Archaeological Society (IOTAS) on Monday 25th of November.

This informal end of year review took the audience through the ups and downs of a year that followed one of the most difficult periods for our commercial archaeological work, where few new development projects were started in Thanet and consequently only a few new sites producing significant archaeological results. Of course the most important excavation carried out this year was the training dig and archive assessment  at Lord of the Manor, Ramsgate, which was reported in journal entries over the summer and continues with the project to catalogue the archive material.

An overview of the lively education programme that has been run by the Trust over the year was given, illustrated with pictures and videos of some of the key moments, particularly Dig for Three Days and the Eagle Festival organised by Bradstow School in Broadstairs, which was also reported in the journal over the summer. Pictures of the many events over the year featuring our historic costumes, our Roman Soldier’s costume in particular, were also given over the evening. It was also noted that our teaching skeleton, which was donated to the Trust by IOTAS was now the central part of People of the Past, one of our key educational sessions  given at many of the Trust’s schools and other workshop events.

Wishlist items donated by IOTAS
Wishlist items donated by IOTAS

The talk drew attention to the success of our two current publications on local archaeological themes, Underground Thanet and St.Augustine’s First Footfall, which have had steady sales over the year. The imminent arrival of a third book on an important early building style in Thanet was also announced, with more to come on this subject.

IOTAS were thanked for their kind donation from our wishlist, which helps support the Trust in managing our collection of finds,  which consisted of  a timely delivery on Friday of a box of A4 paper and a fine set of weighing scales to replace our rather tired, and possibly somewhat inaccurate, old set.

The evening was punctuated with lighthearted comment and banter with the audience and one or two moments of comedic confusion between the speakers. The talk ended with best wishes being given to all for Christmas and was followed by a short question and answer session and a chance to catch up with old friends and new.

End of year round up...
End of year round up…

Roman Day – St Saviour’s Church of England Junior School, Westgate

We were invited again to take part in the Roman Day held by St. Saviour’s Junior School in Westgate for their Year 3 pupils. Our activities this year marked the beginning of the school project to study the Romans, giving the children a chance to experience the range of archaeological evidence for Roman studies before they take on the subject in greater detail.

Romans, lend me your ears!
Romans, lend me your ears!

The morning began with a short introduction to the team from the Trust and to the methods that archaeologists use to explore and reconstruct Roman life before we split the group into their classes for the morning hands-on activities. Our first sessions of the day involved using our Dig and Discover dig boxes to explore the typical artefacts found on a Roman excavation.

Equipment needed by archaeologists
Equipment needed by archaeologists

We also demonstrated the tools, clothes and equipment that a professional archaeologist needs to use when they are doing their job, encouraging the children to think about the skills and resources that are needed in a work environment. Our third activity explored the changes the Romans brought to Britain with them by exploring the buildings and facilities they introduced to the towns that grew during the Roman period, building a plan of a Roman town as we explored the main innovations of Roman life, such as the forts, roads, markets, theatres and baths that were built in major towns. We also explored the survival of the remains of these structures in towns and the possibility that they can still be seen and visited today.

After a break, we had a rapid run through three table-top museum displays showing some of the real Roman objects that have been found in Thanet and how we use those objects to explore three important themes in the study of the Romans. The lives of the people of the past were explored using our skeleton and small items of clothing and dress as well as the structure of Roman graves that can tell us about personal beliefs and individual stories. A display of pottery and other manufactured or imported artefacts explored how life changed with the innovations in material objects brought to Britain by the Romans. Our third table explored the building materials the Romans introduced to Britain, which are so characteristic of the changes made to the fabric of houses and other buildings in town and country in the Roman period.

Our Roman armour in use again at Westgate
Our Roman armour in use again at Westgate
Forming a tortoise with shields
Forming a tortoise with shields

The afternoon session began with an introduction to the soldiers and auxiliaries of the legions, the first Romans to come to Britain in large numbers,. We recruited a new volunteer to dress in our Roman armour costume and serve as a legionary in the Roman Army. With the new addition to the costume of a Pilum, the throwing spear that was the legionary’s main weapon and a marching pack, the experience of being loaded up with equipment demonstrated that the working life of the soldiers was tough and required great physical strength. We also used the shields to explore the fighting tactics of the legionary, using them to create a defensive wall and forming a ‘tortoise’ to defend the soldiers from incoming projectiles. The rest of the classes filled in a work sheet on Roman Armour with a quiz to see if they could remember the names of the parts of the soldiers armour and uniform.

When the individual soldier had been discussed in detail, we went on to examine the structure of the Roman Army in general, which contributed so much to the conquest and Romanisation of Britain. Three classes of Westgatians were formed into legions, their Cohorts led by Centurions and First Centurions under their Primus Pilus. The three legions, the Westgate Wolves, Legendary Lions and Lions of Fire were paraded under their standards by their Legionary Legates (who used to be teachers in civilian life). Finally, the standards were defended by a small detachment of volunteer guards from three volleys of projectiles launched by one of their rival legions, putting the skills of shield walls and tortoise formation into action against a hail of missiles.

At my command...
At my command…
...unleash the foam projectiles!!
…unleash the foam projectiles!!

The battle over, the disbanded troops were marched back to their classes to allowed home after almost a whole afternoon of hard service in the Westgate Legions. We had a wonderful day at Westgate with so much enthusiastic participation and many interesting questions from the children. We hope we can follow up by providing more study resources as the pupils progress with their study of the Romans in the coming weeks.

Lord of the Manor/Ozengell excavation archive project

As part of the project we began in the summer to review the archaeology of an important site at Lord of the Manor Ramsgate, another part of the project has started to review the archives for the previous excavations.
The problem with old archaeological archives is paper. For the Ozengell and Lord of the Manor sites we have envelopes files and folders stuffed with paper in a range of sizes from large scale drawings to typescripts and hand written notes, among many other resources like large X-ray plates.

Working on the Ozengell excavation archives
Working on the Ozengell excavation archives

Paper records take up valuable space and are not as easily accessible in the way that modern technology has made digital information accessible. Where the paper records, stored as they are, can be a slow and stagnant source of information, digital archives can be accessed by many people simultaneously and used for many different purposes.

One problem with old archives is that over the years things get moved around and put out of order. Things that didn’t seem so important suddenly become more valuable. Old letters and correspondence can contain crucial pieces of information which were once part of everyday experience, then became part of a shared memory among those who took part. Finally, when everyone who was there has lost touch or is no longer with us, the written records of that shared experience become our only way to experience some of the important details of the dig. Handwritten notes also let us into the minds of our friends and colleagues who collected such a wealth of experience, which has been lost to us now.

Why do we need to do this review and digitising of the archive?
We need this resource so that we can continue to question the data that was generated. Were the people who excavated the site right in their interpretation? Was there information that they missed which lies unrecognised in the archive because our attention was focused elsewhere?

When the archive is brought to life as digital resource we can have many more eyes and minds brought to bear on the problems, to be able to re-explore the site many times over. With the records in order, as a digital resource we can generate many more questions and answers about this valuable resource that can tell us so much about our past.