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2.3 Artefact studies at Roman military sites

2.3.1 Military equipment and ceramics

Past studies of the artefacts from Roman military sites have essentially concentrated on the evidence they provide for military equipment. This is exemplified by the Journal of Roman Military Equipment and the Roman Military Equipment Conferences (e.g. Coulston 1988; van Driel-Murray 1989; see also Bishop and Coulston 1993; Southern and Dixon 1996, 89-126).

The large quantities of ceramics which have been found in Roman military sites have also meant that these contextualised assemblages have been useful in establishing dated ceramic typologies and in understanding the nature of the ceramic trade (e.g. Anderson and Anderson 1981; compare Willis 1997). Ceramics have also played an important part in providing dating information on various occupation phases of forts and fortresses.

As a consequence, the two classes of artefacts from Roman military sites that have received the most attention have been military equipment and ceramics, particularly the fine and imported ceramics. While studies of the former have often been concerned with function, this has not generally been the case for the latter. The most interesting work on the functional aspects of ceramics has rather been carried out on more utilitarian ceramics, most notably Vivien Swan's study of cooking wares (e.g. Swan 2003).

2.3.2 Artefacts of social significance

In more recent years, the other types of artefacts found at military sites have also received more detailed study. Increasingly, research is being carried out into the role of artefacts in developing a more critical approach to our understanding of Roman military life. Lindsay Allason-Jones, in particular, has carried out extensive research on various types of artefacts found in Roman forts in Britain (e.g. Allason-Jones and Miket 1984) and has stressed the need for a more critical approach to the concept of a 'military assemblage' (Allason-Jones 1999b). She has also warned of the danger of ascribing specific artefacts to particular genders (Allason-Jones 1995). For example, she has noted that, while necklaces of beads were worn by women, beads could be worn as amulets by children of both sexes (Allason-Jones 1995, 27). Horses could also wear melon beads (see Hoffmann 2002, 230; see Section 8.2.1e - beads). Allason-Jones has also argued (1995, 28) that the presence of needles in the presumably male-only turrets on Hadrian's Wall should warn us against simplistic engendering of activities (see Section 8.3.1).

2.3.2a fibulae (brooches)

Aucissa from Casa del Menandro in Pompeii
Figure 6: Aucissa fibula from Casa del Menandro in Pompeii (photo P. M. Allison)

A specific artefact class found on Roman military sites that can provide evidence on the nature of the community is that of fibulae, or brooches (Figure 6). While much research into brooches has consisted of classifying them according to technological aspects of their manufacture (e.g. Almgren 1923; Riha 1979; 1994), Astrid Böhme (1972; 1998a; 1998b) and Stefanie Martin-Kilcher (e.g. 1993) have considered them from the point of view of the wearer and the viewer. Allason-Jones has warned that assigning brooches to women or men, or to military or non-military personnel, is fraught with problems (Allason-Jones 1999b, 2). Böhme has cautiously argued that, while brooches classified as soldiers' brooches are the most frequent on Roman military sites, other types which could conceivably be women's brooches are also sometimes found at these sites (see also Gechter 1979, 77; see Section 8.2.1a).

2.3.2b Leather shoes

Artefact research which has produced results that render this present study necessary is that of Carol van Driel-Murray. Van Driel-Murray has studied leather shoes from Roman military sites (e.g. Van Driel-Murray 1986). Most recently, she has also investigated the spatial distribution of smaller-sized shoes at some of these forts (e.g. Van Driel-Murray, 1994; 1995; 1997). At Vindolanda, in particular, she found concentrations of what she identified as women's and children's shoes in the ordinary soldier's barracks in Period IV of the fort, dated c. 104-120 CE (van Driel-Murray 1995, fig. 1.8). Her findings, therefore, present a strong argument for the presence of ordinary soldiers' families within the fort itself, prior to the lifting of the ban on soldier marriage, and, therefore, provide a new premise from which to view the other artefacts found at these sites.

2.3.2c Gaming items

At Vindonissa, artefacts have been used to corroborate the epigraphic evidence for women within the fortress. For example, Speidel (1996, 55) identified Belica as a freeborn innkeeper or landlady. She is referred to in letter no. 44, as being 'opposite the baths' (Speidel 1996, 186-7; 1999, 79-80). In the excavated area opposite the main baths within the fortress were found numerous gaming stones, dice and kitchen utensils, which Speidel felt confirmed this area's identification as an inn that was run by Belica (see Section 8.4).

2.3.2d Surgical and toilet items

Patricia Baker (2001) has studied instruments from military sites, identified as surgical or toilet items. She has stressed that medical practices are likely to have differed in the various parts of the Roman Empire because of local traditions. She has highlighted that instruments may also be used in different ways in different regions. She analysed the distribution patterns of medical instruments at four legionary fortresses and observed that the depositional patterns and quantities varied between these fortresses, although, notably, both Caerleon, in Wales, and Vindonissa, in Switzerland, seemed to have the highest numbers of such instruments in the baths.

2.3.3 Summary

As outlined, the general understanding, which has pervaded most thought on this subject, is that the 'camp-followers' were housed in settlements outside the military site, and not within the fortifications themselves. As Carol van Driel-Murray has commented (van Driel-Murray 1995, 7), 'a typically 19th century notion of segregated military communities pervades thought on Roman military life'. The work of scholars like Carol van Driel Murray and Lindsay Allason-Jones on artefacts from Roman military sites, and the discovery of artefacts such the wooden tablets from Vindolanda on Hadrian's Wall in Britain (e.g. Bowman and Thomas 1994) and from Vindonissa in Switzerland (e.g. Speidel 1996), have done much to show that it is time to take a closer look at the role of women within Roman military space.

To date, much artefact research has tended to investigate only one class of artefact at a time, lacking a more holistic approach to the complete archaeological record - the spatial arrangements, range of finds and finds assemblages and related activities - for its documentation of the complexity of army life and the interactions of the personnel. In other words, only limited attention has been paid to the distribution of artefact assemblages within these military bases or to the significance of these assemblages for our understanding of life within these spaces. There are exceptions, however (see Section 3.2).

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