Today I will discuss the contribution of archaeological evidence to our understanding of the lives of women in Roman Britain. In order to do this, this piece will examine different pieces of material evidence and endeavour to draw conclusions of what archaeology can tell us about the appearance, mentality and overall lives of women in Roman Britain.
I believe that without the contribution of archaeology, we would know very little on the topic of the lives of women in Roman Britain. A fascinating insight into a woman’s everyday life was found in the Vindolanda Tablets. These are wooden tablets that contain a wide breadth of knowledge about many different areas of everyday life on the Northern Frontier of Britain, from supply lists to personal correspondence, this archaeological find has gifted us much knowledge on the lives of these people. One tablet in particular [Fig 1] is a personal correspondence between Claudia Severa (Wife of Aelius Brocchus who likely was in command of a nearby cohort) and Sulpicia Lepidina (Wife of Flavius Cerialis, Commander of the 8th and 9th cohorts of Batavians)(Potter T. & Johns C.1992). This letter is an invitation from Severa to Lepidinaand her familyto attend a birthday partywhich is a fascinating example of the casual outgoings of the elite women in Roman Britain.
This tablet shows usthat the wives of high-ranking officers were entertaining one and other while their husbands wereawayor working. Despite the ongoing violence in Roman Britain at the time as the Romans attempted to assert their dominance on the natives. Throughout all of the female correspondence there is little mention of warfare, only make passing criticisms about the Britons’ military endeavours, their unusual tactics and ineptitude in battle; instead, more time is used talking about domestic lifeand the children of both women are mentioned multiple times also (Potter T. & Johns C. 1992).Just from this single Vindolanda Tablet it is possible to examine the lives of the women of Roman Britain and as such it is easy to say that archaeology has contributed much to this understanding already.
For many years it was not permitted for soldiers to marry if they ranked below centurion (Gardener J.F. 1987) and due to this one would be forgiven for assuming that the presence of women on the frontier of England would be scarce, however this is not the case. Due to archaeological evidence we know that there were many women accompanying the merchant classes and the military into Britain. These women served a variety of roles from slaves to high-born nobles. Though it is true that soldiers could not have a legitimate marriage or a formal relationship it is also likely thatthewomen operating around the Roman Military had ‘informal’ interactions and relationships with the soldiers as well as working around them (Potter T. & Johns C. 1992).It was not uncommon in fact for the women of a familyto accompany the men of the family on their journey to Hadrian’s Wall where they were posted.Hundreds, possibly thousands of women lived alongside their male companions and counterparts around Hadrian’s Wall. The wall wasn’t just a military foothold and installation; it was also a place of residence for the men who defended it, and of course, their families too. There is much evidence for the presence of women at the frontier.One piece of evidence is the tombstone of the wife of Cornelius Victor. Due to the damage done to the stone it impossible for us to know her name, but it is likely she was brought to the Wall with Victor due to his role working to defend and maintain it(English Heritage/Frances Mclntosh, 2016).
After it was permitted for Roman Soldiers to marry it still wasn’t just the wives of these men that accompanied themto Britain and more specifically the frontier at Hadrian’s Wall. In fact it wasn’t unusual for daughters, sisters and even mothers toaccompany their male family members to Britain, this may have been seen as a favourable alternative to waiting for their husband/father/brother or son to send money home for them, as it is likely that the male was the main supplier for the family(English Heritage, 2016).Evidence of women and girls coming staying at the frontier, who weren’t wives, is in abundance. One of the more striking pieces of this evidence is the tombstone of Ertola [Fig 3]. The tombstone belongs to Ertola who was only a 4 years old when she died. This isn’t the only child burial nearby however as a 5 year old girl lay nearby also, which paints a bleak picture of life on the frontier.
Archaeology gives us further insight into the lives of women in Roman Britain and the liberties they held when examining excavations of Public Bath Houses. Bath-houses show that these Baths were a large part of Roman Cultureand to go to one as a non-roman man or woman would show that you are trying to closely attach yourself to a more civilised lifestyle. These structures consisted of a variety of rooms of differing temperatures in order to fully cleanse the body of dirt and other impurities. Both men and women used the Baths however it was not appropriate for them to do so together and due to this,separate hours were set aside for the different sexes to attend the baths free from one and other(Balsdon J.P.V.D. 1962).It is impressivewhen it is considered thata lot of women would have attended the local Bathsregularly after their occupationas it shows us that the Romans impactedgreatly on the lives of women in this age, as previously there was no similar custom as this and here it seems to be a common place occurrence.
Due to archaeology’s contribution to the topic,we know a lot about what Roman women would have worn in Britain. The women’s clothing fromRoman Britain that survives today can tell us more about their lifestyles thanjust what style was popular. Brooches, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, seal-stones in rings and even hairpins can convey a larger use and meaning than just aesthetic adornment for the individual; allowing us to paint a clearer image of the life the person may have led as well as what they would have looked like wearing their apparel(Potter T.& Johns C. 1992).Imagery of gods and representations of mythical beings were thought to ward off evil(Gilley S. & Sheils W. 1994), which was a serious consideration when choosing what to wear for a Roman Woman as these were real practical functions in their view, furthermore if one were to wear jewellery crafted from precious metals it was a clear sigh of status, class, wealth and taste.Further details of the lives of women in Roman Britain can be examined on the topic of fingerings. Before the Romans occupied Britain,finger rings were rarely worn, however after the Romans had arrived they seem to be far more common. This implies that the custom or fashion of fingerings was a Roman trait and that perhaps natives of Britain adopted this to appear more Roman, especially women(Potter T.& Johns C. 1992).
Archaeology can help us learn a considerable amount about social roles women were expected to fill. This will have taken up much of their time and greatly affected the way they lived. Though it is true that many women were destined to become a housewife, some would work in shops, craft goods or become merchants in their own right. Some of the skills they could employ were both useful around the home and as a way of generating income. A fine example of this is wicker-working. Through archaeological evidence it is clear that many women would be wicker workers and would be able to make different useful objects out of wicker, from small objects like baskets to large furniture such as chairs(Potter T. & Johns C. 1992). Two types of wicker-chair where typically made, one of Celticdecent with a high back and the Romanesque Lounger[Fig 4].Figure 4is the Tombstone of Julia Velva which was found in York (History of York, n.d) and it shows Julia laying on a Roman style Wicker reclined chair, feasting with her family.
It appears that most depictions of wicker work in Roman inscriptions and sculpture, particularly chairs, contain women using the item as opposed to men. Another depiction of a woman using a wicker chair also happens to display the values a woman was supposed to embody in Roman Britain. This example is a White Pipe clay statuette of a Mother Goddess that was found in Welwyn in Hertfordshire[Fig 4]. It shows a Mother Goddess sat on a Celtic style high backed wicker chair. This not only emphasises the role of a woman in the skill of wicker crafting but it also displays her role as being the home making and the raiser of children. This statuette was also likely dedicated for a more masculine need,however,many of the individuals who dedicated these statuettes were male soldiers. This impliesthat this piece of imagery was not created or used by sort of feminine cult,but it was a personification of Roman values and views of the role of women.
As briefly mentioned before,many merchants and craftsmen have decided to go to Britain, and their female relatives may have accompanied them as women could be merchants in their own right, this means that some women’s lives in Roman Britain were that of the merchant class, a good example of this can also be found on the frontier. The House steads Roman Fort[Fig: 6]nearby Hadrian’s Wall shows evidence of some of the shops these women and their families set up. There are visible remains of 6 buildings nearby the south gate. These structures are believed to be inns or shops and they all have a large back room where itis thought the owners of the establishment lived. These shops and inns were a perfect opportunity for the merchant classes to make a good fortune in Britain.
In summary, the contribution of archaeological evidence to our understanding of the lives of women in Roman Britain is essential as without it we would have very little knowledge of the lives of these women, or Roman Britain in general. From tombstones and letters,to ruins and statuettes,there is a lot we can imply about the lives of these people living in Roman Britain. From the things they left behind,our knowledge of women’s concerns can be deduced from their letters and the imagery on their apparel and their place in Roman society can be seen in the imagery and representation of women in statues and carvings. We owe a large majority of our knowledge to the lives of women in Roman Britain to the contribution of archaeological evidence.
Aldhouse-Green, M. J. (2003) The gods of Roman Britain. Princes Risborough: Shire.
Balsdon, J. P. V. D. (1962) Roman women: their history and habits. London: Bodley Head.
British Museum, (n.d), Vindolanda Tablet: Birthday Invite[Photograph], Available Online:http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?partid=1&assetid=209936001&objectid=1362732, [Accessed: 14/04/18]
Dixon, S. (1988) The Roman mother. London: Croom Helm.
English Heritage/Frances Mclntosh, (2016), The Role of Women on Hadrian’s Wall, Available Online: http://blog.english-heritage.org.uk/role-women-hadrians-wall/, [Accessed: 12/04/2018]
English Heritage, (n.d), Cornelius Victor’s and His Wives Tombstone [Photograph], Available Online: http://blog.english-heritage.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/CH243-7.jpg, [Accessed: 13/04/2018]
English Heritage, (n.d), Ertola’s Tombstone [Photograph], Available Online: http://blog.english-heritage.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Vellibia-or-Ertola.jpg, [Accessed: 13/04/2018]
Gardner, J. F. (1986) Women in Roman law and society. London: Croom Helm.
Gilley, S. & Sheils, W. (1994) A history of religion in Britain: practice and belief from pre-Roman times to the present.Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Hadrian’s Wall Country, (n.d), Photo of House Steads Roman Fort[Photograph], Available Online: http://hadrianswallcountry.co.uk/sites/default/files/photos/Housesteads%20Roman%20Fort_1.jpg, [Accessed: 17/04/2018]
Hattatt, R. (2000) A visual catalogue of Richard Hattatt’s ancient brooches. Oxford: Oxbow.
History of York, (n.d), Julia Velva’s Tombstone[Photograph], Available Online:http://www.historyofyork.org.uk/zoom-image.php?img=Julia-Velva-Family-Tombston.jpg, [Accessed: 15/04/18]
Pinterest, (n.d), White Pipe Clay ‘Mother-Goddess’ Statuette[Photograph], Available Online:https://www.pinterest.com.au/pin/531354456010376451/, [Accessed: 16/04/2018]
Potter, T. & Johns, C. (1992) Roman Britain. London: British Museum Press.