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2. How Do We Know About The Romans?

We get a vivid and exciting picture of the Romans, their history, their lives and their beliefs, from two sources of evidence. Firstly, we can read what the Romans themselves wrote about and, secondly, we can use archaeological methods to study what they left behind.
Archaeological excavation in progress on a 2nd century Roman stone building at York (Wellington Row site). York Archaeological Trust
A good deal of what the Romans wrote still survives today. There is history, literature, mythology, philosophy and poetry, and there are also official documents which are usually records of government and army business.
Drawing of a Roman scribe by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain
Inscriptions are a valuable source of written evidence for the Roman period. An inscription was carved or 'inscribed' on stone, metal, wood or some other material. Good examples of Roman inscriptions can be found on altars and tombstones.
Altar dedicated to Jupiter at Maryport Roman fort (Cumbria) by Caballius Priscus, the commander (tribunus) of a cohort of Spanish auxiliary soldiers. Jupiter is referred to by the letters IOM meaning Jupiter, best and greatest (IUPITER OPTIMUS MAXIMUS). Photo Simon I Hill, Senhouse Museum, Maryport
Archaeological remains of Roman times can be found all over the empire. In some places Roman buildings still stand above ground, but there are many more which are buried and can only be revealed after careful excavation by archaeologists.
Excavation in progress of the earliest floor layer in a Roman building in York (Wellington Row site). York Archaeological Trust
It is not only Roman buildings which are found by archaeologists, but also vast numbers of things that the Romans made and used, such as pottery vessels, iron tools, jewellery and coins, which were thrown out in rubbish, accidentally lost or deliberately buried.
Offerings to the goddess Sulis Minerva from the sacred spring at Bath. They include coins, handled vessels (paterae), flagons and, at the top, a mysterious face mask. Roman Bath Museum, Bath
Did you know? Archaeologists sometimes find the skeletons of the Romans themselves lying in their graves or tombs exactly where they were carefully buried many hundreds of years ago.
Roman grave with skeleton (4th century) from Winchester. Winchester Museums

Written Evidence

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One of the first Roman writers to describe Britain and its peoples was the army commander Julius Caesar. He visited Britain while fighting his wars in Gaul. The Britons themselves did not use writing before the Roman conquest.
Coin of the Roman dictator Julius Caesar (murdered 44BC).
Most of the written evidence for Britain in Roman times was in Latin, the Roman language, but few Roman writers ever came to Britain. It was thought of as a place beyond the ocean which surrounded the known world and its peoples were thought to be wild and savage!
A triumphant British warrior with the head of a Roman soldier. Illustration by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain
For everyday writing the Romans in Britain used wooden tablets. Archaeologists have found official and military documents, and also private letters between friends and comrades.
Roman wax tablet, styluses and ink well from London. © Museum of London
For making an important announcement about something like a great victory or a gift to a god the Romans used inscriptions on stone. Large numbers of them have been found in Britain.
The distance slab from Bridgeness near Edinburgh on the Antonine Wall commemorating the construction of 4652 (IIII [bar over] DCLII) paces (M P = milia passuum) of the Wall by the Twentieth Legion. On the left side there is a cavalryman spearing some Britons. On the right side a sacrifice to the goddess of Victory is taking place. Four men watch another man in a toga - probably the legionary commander - who is about to sacrifice a pig, sheep and bull. To accompany the ceremony there is music from a flute player. National Museums of Scotland
Did you know? The Roman language is called Latin - and not 'Roman' - because it takes its name from the region around the city of Rome which is called Latium.

The Latin Language

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Latin was the principal language of the Roman empire, although Greek was widely spoken in the eastern part.
Altar dedicated to Jupiter Optimus (greatest) Maximus (best), shown as IOM, by the 1st Cohort, part cavalry, of Spaniards, commanded by Lucius Antistius Lupus Verianus from Africa at Maryport Roman fort (Cumbria). Photo Simon I Hill, Senhouse Museum, Maryport.
Latin has an alphabet very like our own. Originally there were 20 letters to which K, Y and Z were added. Both I and J were written as I, and both U and V were written as V. There was no W.
Inscription on an altar dedicated to Jupiter Optimus (greatest) Maximus (best), shown as IOM, by the 1st Cohort, part cavalry, of Spaniards, commanded by Lucius Antistius Lupus Verianus from Africa at Maryport Roman fort (Cumbria). Photo Simon I. Hill, Senhouse Museum, Maryport.
On inscriptions you will usually see Roman capital letters, but the Romans also had hand writing which can be very hard for us to decipher. Here is the alphabet in hand written letters from the writing tablets found at Vindolanda fort.
The Roman alphabet used in hand writing. Based on the writing tablets found at Vindolanda fort (Northumberland). Alan Bowman
We know that Latin was widely used in Roman Britain, but we cannot tell how many people spoke Latin instead of the British language. Many British people must have known Latin because there are so many examples of Latin written on everyday objects like pots and tiles.
The mysterious word square written on a piece of wall plaster from Cirencester © Corinium Museum

Writing in Everyday Life

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In the Roman world people in government and the army could usually write in Latin, but most people in provinces like Britain could not write much more than their names and had to employ a scribe to write for them.
Drawing of a Roman scribe by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain
A wax writing tablet is a small block of wood with an area hollowed out on one side and fil-led with wax. A metal stylus with a sharp tip was used to write on the wax. Wax tablets could be re-used because the wax could be smoothed out again with the blunt end of the stylus.
Roman wax tablet, styluses and ink well from London. © Museum of London
Writing tablets for writing in ink were small wooden sheets, usually about the size of a post-card, on which the Romans wrote with a pen made from a sharpened reed. The ink was a mixture of carbon, gum and water. A large number of these writing tablets has been found at the Roman fort of Vindolanda.
Wooden writing tablets with ink writing from Vindolanda Roman fort. (Northumberland). The fragment of a tablet at the top is a passage from Book 9 of Vergil's Aeneid, possibly a schoolboy's exercise. The pair of tablets in the centre reads '…the Britons are unprotected by armour (?). There are very many cavalry. The cavalry do not use swords nor do the wretched Britons mount in order to throw javelins.' The pair of tablets at the bottom is a birthday invitation from Claudia Severa to Sulpicia Lepidina (wife of the commander at Vindolanda). Licensed by the Trustees of the British Museum, The British Museum
A popular way of getting back at your enemies in Roman Britain was to write out a curse on a small lead sheet. People would ask a god or goddess to curse someone who had done them wrong and promised a reward if he or she gave them revenge. This curse from Roman Bath reads: 'The person who has lifted my bronze vessel is utterly accursed. I give him to the temple of Sulis, whether woman or man, whether slave or free, whether boy or girl, and let him who has done this spill his own blood into the vessel itself'.
Lead curse tablets from the sacred spring at Bath. Roman Bath Museum, Bath
A diploma was a Roman document which, like a diploma today, granted some sort of privilege. This one is written on two sheets of bronze and the inscription grants Roman citizenship and the right to get married to a group of auxiliary soldiers.
Replica of the Roman military diploma from Chesters fort (original in the British Museum). It bears an inscription written on two sheets of bronze which grants a number of auxiliary soldiers Roman citizenship and the right to get married. Photo Simon I. Hill, with the kind permission of English Heritage.

Roman Historians

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Roman historians usually wrote about the city of Rome itself and parts of the empire around the Mediterranean sea. However, a few of them mention Britain including the general and dictator Julius Caesar who lived from 100BC to 44BC. In an account of his war in Gaul Caesar describes his campaigns in Britain in 55BC and 54BC, and says a little bit about its people. He tells us that the Britons dyed their bodies blue to make them look terrifying in battle.
18th century medallion of Julius Caesar. The wording around the head is CAESAR DICT PERPETVO (Caesar, dictator for ever) Photo: Simon I Hill, Yorkshire Museum, York
Tacitus, who lived from about 55 to 120, is the Roman historian who had most to say about Britain. He wrote a biography of his father-in-law, Agricola who was Governor of Britain in about the years 78-84. Tacitus describes Agricola's campaigns and some of the people he fought against in Britain. Tacitus also wrote other history books which mention events in Britain including the revolt of Queen Boudicca.
Modern statue of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, Governor of Britain (c.78-84), in his home town of Fréjus, France. Photo Patrick Ottaway
Suetonius, who lived from about 69 to 140, wrote a History of the Twelve Caesars which describes the lives of all the rulers of the empire from Julius Caesar to the Emperor Domitian. In his chapter on the Emperor Claudius, Suetonius describes the invasion of Britain in 43 as 'a campaign of no great importance' which probably tells us what many Romans thought of Britain!
Gold coin of the Emperor Claudius (41-54). The emperor wears a laurel wreath around his head. On the reverse is the arch built in Rome in 51 to mark the conquest of Britain. It is inscribed DE BRITTANN(IS) - 'for Britain'. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Cassius Dio, who lived from 155 to about 230, wrote a history of the Roman empire from earliest times up to the year 229. He is the only writer to tell us what Queen Boudicca looked like: 'She was very tall and had a piercing gaze and a harsh voice. She had a mass of very fair hair which came down to her hips, and she wore a great gold torc and a multi-coloured tunic folded around her, over which was a thick cloak fastened with a brooch'.
Bronze statue of Queen Boudicca and her daughters on Victoria Embankment, London by Thomas Thorneycroft (about 1850). Photo Patrick Ottaway
Ammianus Marcellinus, a Syrian, lived in the 4th century and wrote a history of the Roman empire. One of the events he described was an attack on Britain in the year 367 when barbarians killed a Roman commander and surrounded another!
The walls of the 'Saxon Shore fort' at Burgh Castle (Norfolk), built in the late 3rd century. Photo Patrick Ottaway

Inscriptions on Stone

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The Romans made inscriptions on stone to record great building projects or military victories. They also made inscriptions on altars for their gods and goddesses, and on tombstones to record the names of the dead. Words in these inscriptions are often shortened to a few letters so that reading them is a bit like cracking a code.
Building stone referring to vexillations (detachments) of the Second and Twentieth Legions found at Maryport Roman fort (Cumbria). Photo Simon I Hill, Senhouse Museum, Maryport.
Inscriptions recording building work usually begin with a dedication to the reigning emperor. This slab records construction work on the Antonine Wall frontier in Scotland. Look for the letters: IMP C/T AE/HADRIANO/ANTONINO/AVG/PIO/PP - this part is the dedication to the Emperor Antoninus Pius with his name and titles. It can be translated: 'For the Emperor Caesar Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius, father of his country.
The distance slab from Hutcheson Hill (Bearsden, Glasgow) on the Antonine Wall commemorating the construction of 3000 feet of the Wall by the Twentieth Legion. In the centre a standard bearer is crowned by the goddess Victory and on either side are tied-up native prisoners. Hunterian Museum, Glasgow
Inscriptions dedicated to Roman gods and goddesses are usually found on altars or statues. This is a dedication to the goddess Minerva - DEAE MINERVAE - by a man named Aurelius Sabinianus.
Altar from Caernarfon Roman fort (Gwynedd), Wales dedicated to Minerva by Aurelius Sabinianus, a clerk (actarius). © National Museums & Galleries of Wales
Inscriptions on tombstones and coffins give the name of the dead person and may also tell you their age and the names of their heirs. This is the tombstone of a soldier named Caecilius Avitus of the Twentieth Legion - LEG XX - who lived 34 years - AN XXX IIII. Notice that words are often shortened on Roman inscriptions to make best use of the space, and save time and effort in carving.
Tombstone of Caecilius Avitus, an Optio (deputy centurion) of the Twentieth Legion from Merida (Emerita Augusta), Spain, found in Chester. © Grosvenor Museum, Chester.

The Vindolanda Writing Tablets

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Vindolanda is the Latin name of a fort on the northern frontier of Roman Britain. One reason why it is an exciting place for anyone interested in the Romans is that archaeologists have found a large number of wooden writing tablets which have been amazingly preserved in the ground for nearly 2000 years!
The Roman fort at Vindolanda (Northumberland) seen from the west. Photo Patrick Ottaway with kind permission Vindolanda Trust
The writing tablets are usually post-card sized pieces of thin wood which have ink writing on them. Experts have found that the writing tablets are a mixture of official documents and letters. Most of them were written in 97 - 102 at the time when the fort commander was a man named Flavius Cerialis.
Wooden writing tablets with ink writing from Vindolanda Roman fort. (Northumberland). The fragment of a tablet at the top is a passage from Book 9 of Vergil's Aeneid, possibly a schoolboy's exercise. The pair of tablets in the centre reads '…the Britons are unprotected by armour (?). There are very many cavalry. The cavalry do not use swords nor do the wretched Britons mount in order to throw javelins.' The pair of tablets at the bottom is a birthday invitation from Claudia Severa to Sulpicia Lepidina (wife of the commander at Vindolanda). Licensed by the Trustees of the British Museum, The British Museum
This tablet tells us what the Romans thought of the locals: 'the Britons are unprotected by armour. There are very many cavalry. The cavalry do not use swords nor do the wretched Britons mount in order to throw javelins'.
This is a birthday invitation to Sulpicia Lepidina, the wife of the fort commander from her friend Claudia Severa. Although it was mostly written by a scribe, a line at the end was probably written by Severa herself and is the earliest example of a woman's hand writing from Britain. The tablet reads: 'Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. On the third day before the Ides of September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present . Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him their greetings. I shall expect you sister. Farewell sister my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.'
On this writing tablet fragment is a line from The Aeneid, an epic poem by the Roman writer Vergil and was possibly written as a schoolboy's exercise.

Archaeology

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Archaeologists are a bit like detectives. They try to find out about what life was like and what happened hundreds or even thousands of years ago by studying the things that people in the past have built, buried or lost. Archaeology is exciting because you never know what you are going to find!
Roman cremation burial (late 1st century) from Winchester. The burnt remains of the body were in the central grey pot and there are 22 other pottery vessels. Photo Patrick Ottaway Winchester Museums
One way archaeologists study the past is by digging - or excavating - in the ground. Archaeologists studying the Romans find the remains of buildings and streets, and masses of what is actually Roman rubbish. This includes bones, fragments of broken pottery, old clothes and shoes, tools and jewellery, and lots of other things that were lost or thrown away.
Archaeological excavation in progress on a 2nd century Roman stone building at York (Wellington Row site). York Archaeological Trust
Archaeologists often find Roman graves and tombs which contain the skeletons of Roman people. They were sometimes buried with pots, jewellery and other precious things.
Roman male skeleton (4th century) from York. York Archaeological Trust
There is a lot more to archaeology than digging. Archaeologists have worked out lots of different ways of learning about ancient sites without disturbing them. For example, they use aerial photography to map sites which cannot be clearly seen on the ground.
Aerial view of the Roman forts at Cawthorn (North Yorkshire) from the west. Royal Commission on Historical Monuments for England
A vital part of archaeology is the study of all the things which have been found by digging, such as pottery, metal objects, bones and so on. Archaeologists are trained to use very specialised scientific techniques which can tell them exactly how things were made, where they come from and how old they are.
Detail of a Roman human skull under examination by a specialist. York Archaeological Trust
Did you know? Archaeologists have to use a small trowel to dig with because they must be careful not to damage any delicate finds like a piece of jewellery or a skeleton. Sometimes they even have to use a tooth pick!
Archaeological excavator carefully cleaning a Roman stone surface with a trowel. York Archaeological Trust

Archaeological Excavation

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An archaeological site is like a great big jigsaw puzzle. The pieces are the remains of buildings, layers of rubbish and rubble, filled-up pits and ditches and even the graves of the dead.
Archaeological excavation in progress on a 2nd century Roman stone building at York (Wellington Row site). York Archaeological Trust
In some places, especially towns, there may be archaeological remains which are several metres deep. This is because people have lived in that place for hundreds of years and all the time the ground level rises as they put one building on top of another and dump their rubbish.
Excavation of Roman archaeological layers in a deep trench in York (Wellington Row site). Photo Patrick Ottaway York Archaeological Trust.
On any 'dig' the archaeologist has to start at the end of the story - today's ground surface - and gradually work back through the different periods of history. The archaeologist's job is to gradually remove each layer and each structure in the reverse order to which it was buried in the ground. It is a bit like running a film backwards.
Archaeological excavation in progress on a 2nd century Roman stone building at York. York Archaeological Trust
As archaeologists dig away the remains of the past they are also destroying them! It is very important, therefore, that they make a record of what they find. Detailed notes are written, scale drawings are made and photographs are taken. The place where every object was found is carefully plotted.
Making a record of archaeological discoveries at York. York Archaeological Trust

The Story of a Roman Dig

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Here is a site which was excavated by archaeologists in the heart of the Roman town at York. The modern concrete has just been removed and the diggers are examining the medieval layers above the Roman remains.
The Wellington Row site at York showing excavation of medieval and modern layers in progress. York Archaeological Trust.
The diggers have just started to find Roman stone walls, but first they must carefully excavate layers of dark soil in which they are finding pottery which dates to the later 4th century. These layers mark the end of the Roman period in York.
Late Roman (4th century) dark coloured layers inside a Roman building in York (Wellington Row site). York Archaeological Trust.
Amongst the broken pottery and animal bones a bone comb has been found. It is made in a style which was popular in the 4th century.
4th century Roman bone comb from York. York Archaeological Trust.
Another find is a mysterious little figure carved in a kind of black shiny stone called jet.
Fragment of a small jet plaque from York showing a human figure in relief. Photo: Simon I Hill, York Archaeological Trust
More walls have appeared and it is clear that a Roman stone building has been found.
Remains of a Roman stone building at York (Wellington Row site). York Archaeological Trust
The 'dig' has now reached the beginning of the 3rd century and has revealed a floor made of crushed limestone and mortar. You can see a stone pillar on which a wooden roof support had rested.
Roman stone building at York (Wellington Row site). The layer of crushed limestone and mortar probably supported a wooden floor which does not survive. York Archaeological Trust
Here are some finds from the floor of the building. Can you see a tile, an oyster shell and pottery, including a piece with a face on it?
Tray of finds from an archaeological excavation at York (Wellington Row site) - notice there is a piece of Roman pottery with a face on it!
Further excavation has brought the diggers back to the late 2nd century and there is evidence for a great fire. There are burnt floor timbers and the walls have been reddened by heat.
Excavation in progress of burnt floor timbers in a 2nd century Roman building at York (Wellington Row site). Photo Patrick Ottaway York Archaeological Trust
Here is an artist's impression, based on archaeological evidence, of what the building looked like when it caught fire.
Reconstruction of a Roman building on fire in York (Wellington Row site). Illustration by Simon Chew, York Archaeological Trust.
The archaeologists have gone back to the middle of the 2nd century when the stone building was put up as part of what was then the new Roman town at York. They can now see the bottom of the walls.
Excavation in progress of the earliest floor layer in a Roman building in York (Wellington Row site). York Archaeological Trust

Archaeological Finds

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On most 'digs' archaeologists find lots of objects - usually called 'finds' - which must be kept for further analysis. Some of them - like coins, jewellery, leather shoes or the Roman wooden wheel shown here - are very delicate and will need careful conservation to prevent them disintegrating.
An archaeological conservator at York Archaeological Trust working on a Roman wooden wagon wheel from Carlisle. York Archaeological Trust
Different kinds of pot, such as bowls, flagons and jars, tell us about daily life in Roman times. We can also use pottery to learn about trade because if we know where a pot was made we can then trace its journey to the place where it was used and thrown away. Some pots came to Britain from distant parts of the Roman empire.
Roman pots from York: jar (left), mortarium or mixing bowl (centre), flagon (right) and beaker (far right). York Archaeological Trust
Building materials, like tile, stone and timber, tell us what Roman buildings looked like and how they were constructed even if the buildings themselves have not survived.
The tip of a Roman timber post, showing marks of an axe or adze, from York. York Archaeological Trust.
Animal bones are usually the remains of people's dinners and so they can tell us what meat people ate. Bones also tell us what the animals looked like and how old they were when they were killed.
Animal bones from Roman excavations in York. York Archaeological Trust
Tools used by craftspeople are very common finds. They are usually made of iron. and include axes, hammers and knives.
Roman iron tools: hammer (left), axe (centre) and field anvil (right).The anvil was used for sharpening scythes and sickles during harvesting. © Rescue: Trust for British Archaeology
The Romans made beautiful jewellery such as this gold buckle and buckle-plate.
Roman gold belt buckle and buckle-plate from Thetford (Norfolk) dated to about the year 380. On the buckle-plate is a figure of a dancing satyr holding a bunch of grapes. Licensed by the Trustees of the British Museum, The British Museum
Roman leather shoes have only survived on a small number of sites where the archaeological layers are waterlogged. If leather is buried in wet soil it does not decay as it would in dry soil. After excavation, however, a leather shoe needs careful conservation to prevent it drying out and crumbling away.

Archaeological Dating

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As archaeologists dig down into the ground they always need to be able to check on how far back in time they have gone. In other words, they need to have a way of dating the buildings, roads, graves and so on that they have found.
Archaeological excavation in progress on a 2nd century Roman stone building at York (Wellington Row site). York Archaeological Trust
Archaeologists can sometimes tell the date of a building from the way it has been constructed. Every period of history, including the Roman period, has its own special styles in such things as stonework, windows and floors.
Archaeological recording in progress of a 2nd century Roman stone wall at York (Wellington Row site). York Archaeological Trust
Archaeologists may be able to tell where they are in time if the objects they find are shaped or decorated in a distinctive way. For example, the shape and decoration of brooches kept changing throughout the Roman period. Here you can see a 1st century brooch and a 4th century brooch. 527 +
Two 4th century Roman crossbow brooches from Winchester. Winchester Museums
Pottery is very useful for dating the layers on archaeological sites because changes in shape and decoration happened frequently. These changes have been carefully studied by experts. A special type of shiny red Roman pottery known as Samian ware was imported to Britain from Gaul between the 1st and the 3rd centuries. Because the shapes and decoration of Samian pots are so distinctive, it is often possible to say when a piece was made to within 20 - 30 years.
Pieces of Samian ware from York. York Archaeological Trust
Archaeologists can usually tell the date when a Roman coin was minted because it has the head of an emperor on it. The years when each emperor ruled are well known to historians. This means that coins can be used for dating Roman sites, although we must be careful because a coin could be used for a very long period before it was lost. This coin of the Emperor Commodus was minted in the year 183, but it was found on the floor of a Roman building in York which was actually built over 100 years later!
Silver coin (denarius) of the Emperor Commodus (180-92). The reverse shows the goddess Minerva with a javelin. Photo: Simon I Hill, York Archaeological Trust.
Did you know? A Roman Samian ware pot often has a stamp on it which gives you the name of the potter who made it - this stamp is OF SEVERI which means from the workshop of Severus.
Maker's stamp on a samian pottery bowl: OF SEVERI = workshop (officina) of Severus. York Archaeological Trust

Dendrochronology

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Dendrochronology, or tree ring dating, is a scientific way of finding out how old ancient timber buildings are. It can tell us when the trees used to make the posts and beams in a building were cut down.
Remains of 2nd century timber buildings at York (Tanner Row site). York Archaeological Trust
This is how dendrochronology works. A tree trunk has a series of circular growth rings - one is added every year. The thickness of each ring will be different because every year the weather is different and this affects the growth of the tree. In dry years the rings are thin and in the wet years they are thicker. From the time it started growing the tree develops a distinctive pattern of ring thicknesses.
Cross-section through a piece of oak showing the tree rings. York Archaeological Trust.
Experts have studied the pattern of rings on timbers from old buildings and archaeological digs going back in time. By finding timbers which overlap in their date range it is possible to build up a record of the pattern of tree ring thicknesses going right back into Roman times and beyond.
Diagram to show the principles of dendrochronology. York Archaeological Trust.
The tree rings from a timber in any Roman building can be compared with the master record and we can usually tell when the tree was cut down and, therefore, when the building was put up.
The tip of a Roman timber post, showing marks of an axe or adze, from York. York Archaeological Trust.
A very exciting use of dendrochronology has been on the timber riverside wharves in Roman London. It is possible to say when they were built to within a few years. This could not have been done by any other means.

Aerial Photography

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Aerial photography involves taking pictures of the landscape from the air. Ancient buildings, filled-in ditches, burials and other remains of the past will show up much more clearly when they are seen from the air than they do on the ground.
Burdrop Down (Dorset). Aerial view of fields of Iron Age or Roman date defined by earthen banks. Royal Commission on Historical Monuments for England
The ditches and ramparts of a Roman fort may be difficult to see on the ground, but from the air and in the right light or weather you can see them quite clearly.
Ardoch Roman fort (Tayside), Scotland, seen from the air in snow with ditches of the late 1st century and mid 2nd century forts visible. Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments for Scotland
One way of spotting ancient sites from the air is by looking at fields when crops are growing on them. You may then see what archaeologists call 'crop marks'. Let us see how a crop mark is created by looking first at the rampart and ditch of a Roman fort as it was originally built.
Here is the rampart after it has been left to erode away while soil fills the ditch.
The field is now ploughed destroying the rampart completely, although the ditch is still there. The crops grow more strongly over the ditch because there is more soil here than in the surrounding area. The line of the ditch can now be seen from the air.
The buried ditch, of a fort or a farmstead, will usually show as a dark coloured crop mark in the field because the crop remains green longer and ripens later in this area.
Aerial photograph of the Roman fort at Newton Kyme (West Yorkshire). The fort ditch shows as a dark crop mark on the left side of the picture.
A crop will not grow well over a buried wall because there is less depth of soil. The crop mark will usually be light coloured as you can see on this view of a Roman villa.
Aerial view showing the crop mark of Gargrave Roman villa (North Yorkshire). The lines of the walls are light coloured because the crop has grown less well in the shallow soil covering them.

Environmental Archaeology

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Environmental archaeologists study what the natural world was like in the past and how human beings have affected it. They find out about what plants grew, and what animals and even what insects there were.
Spelt wheat (Latin triticum spelta). © Allan Hall.
We learn about Roman animals from their bones. For example, dog bones tell us that the Romans had small dogs like poodles as well as big dogs like greyhounds.
Dog leg bones, Roman and modern. On the left the bones of large hounds (the white one is modern) and on the right, bones of small dogs the size of a poodle (the white one is modern). Environmental Archaeology Unit, York University
Fish bones can be found by careful sieving of soil from archaeological sites. In Roman times people ate eels, salmon and other river fish, but did not usually fish out at sea to catch cod or haddock.
Fish bones from archaeological excavations in York. York Archaeological Trust
We usually learn about plants because their seeds, stones or pips are preserved in the ground. This can happen as a result of charring during a fire. Here are some dates which were charred when Queen Boudicca burnt Colchester!
In ground which has been wet since Roman times the bodies of insects like beetles and fleas may survive. Most species of insect will only live in certain conditions so by studying insects we can tell, for example, if a Roman building was damp and dirty or dry and clean.
Pig louse (magnified) from a Roman rubbish tip in York. © Environmental Archaeology Unit, York University
SDid you know? Archaeologists sometimes find Roman faeces or what you probably call 'poo'! Analysis of it can tell us about Roman diet because things like bran, fruit stones and fish bones are not always digested and pass through a person's stomach.
Mineralised human excrement - 'poo' - from an archaeological excavation at York. York Archaeological Trust
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