Living with the Romans

23 July 2005 to 4 June 2006

Please note that this exhibition has now closed

This was the first ever exhibition to reveal what life was like for people in Liverpool and the North West during the Roman period.

The North West of England lay on the very edge of the vast Roman Empire. The area is well known for its Roman sites, including the great legionary fortress at Chester, forts at Manchester and Northwich, and civilian settlements such as Wilderspool, near Warrington. But until recently we knew almost nothing about the native people who were here when the Romans arrived.

Through the painstaking work of archaeologists, we can begin to understand how the people of the North West lived nearly 2000 years ago. For generations they had farmed the land much as their ancestors had done. In this exhibition we showed what they were they like, how their lives changed when the Romans arrived and what it was really like to be 'Living with the Romans'.

The exhibition contained Romano-British finds including tiles, pottery, coins, brooches and ornaments from National Museums Liverpool's archaeological excavations. A full-size Romano-British farmhouse with realistic sounds and smells, plus artefacts, dioramas and models portrayed a vivid picture of daily life.

Our ancestors and the Roman invasion

two men in costume, one wearing Roman armour and the other a simple smock

Roleplayers dressed as a Roman centurion and a celt

What were our ancestors like?

Julius Caesar described the Britons of southern England in the 1st century BC, 

"Most of those inhabiting in the interior do not grow corn, but live instead on milk and meat and clothe themselves in skins. All the Britons dye themselves with woad, which produces a blue colour, and as a result their appearance in battle is all the more daunting. They wear their hair long and shave all their bodies with the exception of their heads and upper lip" (Caesar V, 14).

Although we cannot tell how far this applied to the tribal people of the north, it may give us an impression of what they were like. 

The Roman invasion

The Romans invaded England in AD 43 and within a few years began to build towns in the south and east of the country.

It was another 30 years before the Romans set up a permanent headquarters in Chester and built forts across the North West. The forts, and later towns, were linked by a network of roads which opened up the countryside to the army and to trade. 

There were two main tribes in the area at this time, the Cornovii in Cheshire and the Brigantes in Lancashire. The Romans came north for two reasons: to crush the resistance of the druids in Anglesey and to end fighting within the ruling family of the Brigantes. 

What did the Romans find when they arrived?

In England the Romans found a patchwork of fields, forests and peat bogs, that were home to eagles, brown bears, wild boar and wolves. Across this landscape there were scattered farms, some surrounded by ditches and high earth banks which were as much for show as protection.

Here in the North West with its forests, marshes and mossland the Romans encountered the Cornovii who lived in Cheshire and Wirral, and the Brigantes who lived north of the Mersey. These tribes spoke a Celtic language called Brythonic which developed into modern Welsh and Breton.

Archaeologists have found traces of native Iron Age farms through excavations at Irby, Halewood and Lathom. Very few objects survive in the ground. People used wooden and leather vessels which rot away over time. Items such as spindle-whorls, used for spinning wool, and quern stones, used for grinding corn, provide important clues. Pottery was used rarely, but coarse pottery containers for Cheshire salt were traded widely in the region for their contents.

Everyday life with the Romans

man in costume with a shield

David Freeman in Romano-British clothing © David Freeman

Most people in the countryside continued to be peasant farmers after the Romans arrived. Life revolved around the seasons. There were crops to be planted and harvested, and animals to be milked, tended and slaughtered. 

Excavations at Irby and Halewood show that farmers were growing cereals such as barley, emmer and spelt wheat, as well as beans and peas. 

Animal bones rarely survive but bones from Irby or Court Farm show that sheep, pigs, cattle and chickens were all kept. Livestock were seen as a measure of wealth. Oxen were important to the local people and often occur in decorative metalwork such as mounts on wooden buckets. 

Alongside farming, they also spun wool and wove their own clothing. Numerous spindle whorls show that spinning wool to make yarn was a common activity at the farms. The local farmers may have learnt bronze casting, to make decorative items such as brooches, and blacksmithing to make their own iron tools. 

The influence of the Romans

girl wearing a simple gold bracelet and necklace

A museum visitor modelling examples of Roman-inspired jewellery 

Very little changed immediately when the Romans arrived but within a generation or two local people increasingly came into contact with Roman fashions. New farms were set up in the countryside, some settled by retired soldiers familiar with Roman manners and customs, some by natives from elsewhere in Britain. People began to use pottery in their everyday lives for preparing and serving food. Luxury wares were imported from the continent and more functional types came from other areas of England and were also made locally. 

People gradually started to use Roman coins in the countryside to buy the new types of goods in local markets although traditional ways of exchanging goods and produce probably continued throughout the period. 

New styles of clothing and jewellery were introduced. Brooches became a common dress accessory for men and women and hobnailed shoes appeared for the first time. Women now had access to Roman cosmetics and fashion jewellery. 

The greater use of durable materials means that much more survives from the Roman period than before.

The roundhouse

small house with a thatched roof

A reconstructed roundhouse in the former museum's courtyard

Our ancestors lived in roundhouses, a style of building that dates back more than 3000 years to the Bronze Age. Each farm would have had a number of houses, probably for different members of the same family, parents, grandparents and cousins, or for the animals.

Excavation gives us very few clues about what happened inside the houses. Objects that survive tell us what kind of items people owned and used, and suggest the kind of activities that went on in the farms. Some houses had a quern for grinding cereals and a hearth in the centre for heat and cooking, and a clay oven for baking bread.

A typical roundhouse was reconstructed in the museum courtyard for this exhibition. Built using traditional methods, the roundhouse showed how houses in this area may have looked in the Roman period. 

man weaving long thin branches around upright posts

David Freeman building the roundhouse, dressed in Romano-British costume

How did we know how to build the roundhouse?

No original roundhouse survives so we need to use various clues to reconstruct what their houses may have looked like.

We know from excavations on sites such as Irby, Wirral, the size and shape of the foundations. These survive as postholes in the ground, into which upright posts were set to form the walls. We know from other sites that stakes of wood were set between the posts and hazel twigs were woven through the posts to make a wattle wall. The walls were then plastered with clay and straw. The roof was almost certainly covered with straw or heather, built in a conical shape. There is no smoke-hole as smoke gradually filters through the thatch. This roundhouse has been constructed using original methods and materials.

The garden

Alongside the roundhouse in the museum courtyard a garden was created with plant types known from Roman Britain. It featured a variety of species during the course of the exhibition, from native plants such as mint and the turnip to ‘new’ foods like onion and rosemary. The Romans introduced many new plants to Britain, including garlic, white mustard and dill.

Some of the species grown in Roman Britain were food plants, others were used to flavour food or as medicines. People also collected wild foods such as berries, nuts and fruit.

Clues to the past 

curved trench dug in the earth

Wall foundations of 4th century AD Romano-British roundhouse

Archaeologists use a wide range of techniques to find out about people in the past. Sometimes the evidence is very difficult to detect. Twenty years ago we knew almost nothing about the Iron Age and Roman population in this area. But through a painstaking programme of research we have finally begun to reveal the secrets of the past.

Local finds

The Leasowe man skeleton

close up computer image of skull

In July 2005 the Museum of Liverpool Life welcomed the return to the North West of a long-absent resident. The oldest surviving skeleton from Merseyside, found on the Wirral shore in 1864, had finally returned to the region. As part of the Living with the Romans exhibition, which ran from 23 July 2005 to 4 June 2006, the skeleton was borrowed from the Natural History Museum in London as the centrepiece of a display on our Romano-British ancestors.

The skeleton was found by workmen repairing the embankment at Leasowe on the north Wirral coast. They came across the body laid out under a bed of peat. The owner of nearby Leasowe Castle, Sir Edward Cust, donated the remains to the Royal College of Surgeons in 1864. Eventually the skeleton found its way to the Natural History Museum in London where it was recently rediscovered by Dr Silvia Gonzalez, a scientist from Liverpool John Moores University.

For over a century the skeleton was thought to be prehistoric, perhaps as old as 4000 BC. However, radiocarbon dating has shown that the skeleton is actually Roman in date. As such it is the only Roman skeleton from Merseyside.

https://youtu.be/YoC5ODQR-GY

You can find out more about Roman field archaeology projects at local sites undertaken by the museum’s archaeology and see recent local finds, including several from the Roman period, on the archaeology pages of this website.

The port at Meols 

 

small rusted metal arc with a hoop halfway along inside the curve

Copper alloy cosmetic pestle with suspension loop - one of the Roman finds discovered at Meols.

In the 19th century thousands of ancient objects were found on the shore at Meols as the Wirral coastline eroded. These show that Meols was an important port from as early as 500 BC. Traders came from as far away as Gaul and the Mediterranean in search of minerals from North Wales and Cheshire.

Roman soldiers used Meols as a harbour to attack the druids in North Wales and to control the northern tribes, well before the fortress was built at Chester. Throughout the Roman period traders on the dangerous west coast route used the port as a safe haven. Large numbers of coins, brooches and other objects show that Meols was also an important local market place.

By the end of the Roman period pirates were a menace in the Irish Sea. Soldiers may have been garrisoned at Meols to combat this threat.

See the Field Archaeology unit's web pages for further information about their excavations at Meols.

Tombstone of Vedica 

large headstone with figure carved at top

Replica of the Vedica tombstone

It is very difficult to find traces of our ancestors in this region but occasionally their images survive on tombstones.

The tombstone of Vedica is that of a 30-year-old woman who belonged to the Cornovii tribe, native peoples of Cheshire. It is the only known tombstone of a Cornovian woman and was found behind the Rose and Crown Inn at Ilkley in West Yorkshire in 1884. Vedica presumably married a soldier who settled there. She died aged 30, at the end of the 1st century AD.

https://youtu.be/zBcVghdqLsk

Techniques

Here are some of the techniques that our archaeologists have used to locate and investigate ancient sites in the region:

Aerial photography

We have found over 50 farmsteads in the North West through aerial photography. The sites show up as distinctive marks in dry periods as crops planted over buried ditches stay green longer than the rest of the field.

Fieldwalking

We have identified a number of sites through fieldwalking. Walking across ploughed fields we search for fragments of early pottery, burnt stones or other objects. Clusters of artefacts show where early settlements once stood.

Excavation

We have investigated only a few sites in more detail as this can take many years. A team of archaeologists has been working on a site at Lathom each summer for seven years and we still haven’t finished!

Excavation can reveal a wide range of evidence, from the remains of buildings, pits used as toilets, the objects that people used and threw away, the animals they reared and the food they ate. Minute traces of charred seeds can tell about the crops that were grown, the weeds plagued the fields and the insects that infested the crops and people.

We can date the site from distinctive objects found in different layers of soil below ground. We use a variety of techniques on site during excavation such as trowelling, planning, photography and surveying.

Scientific techniques

By using different scientific techniques, we can investigate the artefacts and the sites they come from in more detail.

Grains of pollen trapped in the soil can tell us whether the landscape was wooded, grassland or agricultural land. Radiocarbon dating of burnt organic material enables us to date sites even when there are no objects. By studying human bones, like Leasowe Man, we can learn about the health, diet and physique of our ancestors.

Exhibition supported by National Museums Liverpool Business 2008.

National Museums Liverpool Business 2008 logo