The most important discovery of Roman armor to be made in Britain since that at Corbridge in 1964 has recently been unearthed during archaeological excavations in Carlisle.
The Carlisle hoard includes many rare items of military interest, the most spectacular being a scale shoulder guard believed to be a unique example of its type anywhere in the world.
Consisting of dozens of iron scales held together with bronze wire, this piece may at last solve the puzzle of how such armor worked. Other fragments include complete laminated limb defenses worn by legionaries on an armor on their sword arms and copied from the equipment of gladiators.
Under commission from Carlisle City Council, archaeologists John Zant and Gerry Martin of Carlisle Archaeology Ltd, University of Bradford, made the discovery on the floor of a building on the north side of the main east-west road, the via principalis.
This building, which stands opposite another identified as a smithy, or fabrica, has been tentatively identified as an armorer's workshop dating from the Hadrianic period around the second century AD. It was on one of the floors of this building that the various groups of armor and fragments of helmets were discovered.
Mike McCarthy, Managing Director of Carlisle Archaeology, said, "This wonderful discovery ranks among the most important ever made in Britain from the Roman period. The hundreds of items recovered from the site provide a fascinating insight on the period and on the nature of the Roman defense of its northern frontier."
(Carlisle Archaeology Ltd is a division of the University of Bradford's Department of Archaeological Sciences.)
Because of their fragility and rarity, the objects were taken to the Royal Armouries, one of the world's leading museums of arms and armor, where Dr. David Starley, the museum's scientific officer, assessed the objects using its advanced X-radiography facilities.
Thom Richardson, Keeper of Oriental and European armor at the Royal Armories, said, "Without doubt this is one of the most exciting and important archaeological discoveries of Roman armor in recent years. From initial observations, it appears likely that it will provide invaluable technical information on how such armor was constructed and functioned. The waterlogged nature of the deposit will also provide detailed evidence about aspects such as the articulation of iron plates by leathers which seldom survive."
Although the date of the armor has yet to be fully established through an analysis of the stratigraphic sequence, it is currently thought that the fragments of armor date to the first half of the second century, after AD 103-5, and are probably Hadrianic, AD 120s-130s.
This is of particular interest because it is known that heavy cavalry accompanied the Emperor on his visit to Britain when he initiated the building of Hadrian's Wall.
The Emperor Hadrian (AD 76-138) visited Britain in June 122 AD as part of his tour of the frontiers along the Rhine in Germany. Accompanied by his friend, the next Governor of Britain, Aulus Platorius Nepos, senior military and administrative officials, and the historian Suetonius, the Emperor was met by the outgoing Governor, Pompeius Falco, and toured the frontier. Members of the elite Praetorian Guard and heavy cavalry would most likely have been present.
Carlisle had already been identified as a place of key strategic significance and the Emperor's tour would almost certainly have included the fortress there. Building work on the wall that bears his name began almost immediately.
Other discoveries of the same date from the site include large numbers of iron projectile heads, a number of spearheads, clay slingshot, ballista balls and bolts.
The pieces are currently being stabilized prior to conservation work. It is hoped that they will be revealed to the public in 2002.