‘Selfies’ and a willy: look what Hadrian’s Wall archaeologists have found
In a major first, inscriptions with the busts may reveal the names of two quarrymen who helped build the Roman wall
A collection of “selfies” inscribed on an ancient quarry in Cumbria, England, has revealed for the first time the faces of the men who helped build Hadrian’s Wall.
Archaeologists discovered the faces – along with a figure of a penis – carved into the face of a long-abandoned quarry at Gelt Woods, from which stone to build part of the Roman wall was hewed.
The two shallow relief busts of the men were discovered alongside written inscriptions describing the project to supply stone for the 117km-long defensive wall, which marked the northern frontier of the Roman empire.
The new carvings found at Gelt Woods quarry this week also include a shallow relief sculpture of a phallus – a common Roman symbol of good luck, no doubt intended to protect the men undertaking the dangerous task of extracting the rock.
Experts will now use digital analysis to examine the inscriptions, whose detail is hidden behind layers of natural growth, to glean more information about the building of Hadrian’s Wall.
The faces are thought to be quarrymen attached to the Second and XX Legions who had been ordered to carry out a major repair programme of the wall in the year 207.
Ian Haynes, professor of archaeology at Newcastle University, said: “Memorialisation was popular in the Roman world and was part of the honouring of ancestors. These men had been working at quite a height on the rock face for a while and probably knew they were about to come down for the final time.
“Perhaps they thought: ‘Why not leave our mark and show we were here?’ They may well have wanted that sense of wanting to be remembered, which all humans do. Perhaps they were leaving a piece of themselves there to mark the spot where they had been working at this arduous task for so long.”
The site at Gelt Woods is one of only a handful of Roman quarries in England to feature these kinds of inscriptions, and the only one to carry the features of people associated with Hadrian’s Wall, now a World Heritage Site.
The information recorded on the rock face is of particular importance because it could reveal the names of the men who worked there and and in some instances their rank and military units. One inscription, “EPPIVSM”, is thought to represent the name Eppius M.
Another reads “APRO ET MAXIMO CONSVLIBVS OFICINA MERCATI” and refers to the Roman consulate of Aper and Maximus, allowing archaeologists to identify the site as having been used for the rebuilding and repair work carried out on the wall in the early third century.
As part of a project funded by Historic England, archaeologists from Newcastle University are gaining access to the rock face using a system of ropes and pulleys to record the inscriptions and carvings before they are lost forever to the elements.
Lowering themselves 10m down the quarry face, they are using sophisticated digital photography techniques to produce a 3D record of the writings and images which will be studied further, before being made available to the public later in 2019 on an image-sharing platform.
It is hoped the discovery of the two carved faces, along with a third found earlier during the project, will provide hitherto unknown information about one of the greatest construction projects of the ancient world.
Mike Collins, inspector of ancient monuments for Hadrian’s Wall at Historic England, said: “These inscriptions at Gelt Forest are probably the most important on the Hadrian’s Wall frontier. They provide insight into the organisation of the vast construction project that Hadrian’s Wall was, as well as some very human and personal touches.”
The carvings would have last been visible to the naked eye in the 1980s, before the collapse of a path up to the site.
What came to be known as “the Written Rock of Gelt” was originally discovered in the 18th century, but the site is only now being recorded properly after centuries of gradual erosion of the soft sandstone into which the images were carved.
Haynes said: “These inscriptions are very vulnerable to further gradual decay. This is a great opportunity to record them as they are in 2019, using the best modern technology to safeguard the ability to study them into the future.”
– © The Daily Telegraph