By Malcolm Russell and Ed Bucknall
Londinium was the capital of Roman Britain and the precursor of today’s London. Mudlarks Malcolm Russell and Ed Bucknall scour the River Thames at low tide for the remnants of this ancient city. Here they share their favorite finds and explore what these can tell us about life two millennia ago.
The Ambiguous City
The precise circumstances of Londinium’s founding in the years following the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43, remain ambiguous. Some argue it was first organized and settled by merchants from across the Empire—Gaulish, Greek, Italian, and North African money lenders, carpetbaggers, traders, and profiteers seeking fortune and adventure in the raw new province of Britannia. Londinium’s location, at a crossing point on the River Thames makes sense in this respect, providing easy access to both continental and domestic trade. What we can be certain of however, is that despite being razed to the ground by rebel Britons in AD 61 and destroyed by fire again in AD 122, Londinium grew from a frontier town to acquire all the trappings we would associate with a Roman city: baths, shops, a forum, civic buildings, an amphitheater for entertainment, and temples for worship. The objects its inhabitants lost or discarded give us a glimpse of what its inhabitants lives were like.
Hair was a major determinant of a Roman woman’s physical attractiveness. Pins were used to help create elaborate styles characterized by masses of shaped curls, braids and high arching crowns made using fillets of wool and toupees. These were sometimes made from captured hair: extensions consisting of human hair taken as a spoil of war.
Small sections of these hand-carved bone hairpins wash up fairly often on the Thames foreshore at low tide, and if you’re lucky, more complete examples can occasionally be found. These may have last been held by slave hairdressers known as ornatrices. Wealthier Roman women did not style their hair themselves, but retained one or more ornatrices. The Roman poet Ovid wrote of a woman experiencing a bad hair day attacking her ornatrice with a hairpin, and advises against this.
Gaming Counters and Dice
Between us, we’ve recovered eleven Roman gaming counters and a bone die from the Thames foreshore. Their brown and black color camouflages them, but their shape stands out amid the shingle. These may have been used to play tabula, a forerunner of backgammon in which groups of counters were moved around a board, dictated by rolling dice. Gambling in games of chance such as tabula was theoretically outlawed, but persisted nonetheless. Emperor Claudius supposedly had a travelling tabula set installed in his chariot, and a wall painting in Pompeii depicts two tabula players facing off with the caption “Go outside if you want to fight.” Disputes may have arisen, because dice used were irregularly shaped and had a bias toward falling on certain numbers, giving the owner an advantage.
For Romans, a visit to the bathhouse was about more than just bathing. The baths were also a place to gossip, meet friends, conduct business deals, eat snacks, and lift some weights—a bar, coffee shop, and gym all in one. More broadly, anyone wishing to live and work in Londinium was expected to conform to the Roman idea of what was appropriate for a city dweller and visiting the baths was symbolic in this respect. Londinium’s two bathhouses and some larger houses were heated by hypocaust systems: clay box tiles, which conducted the warmth of a furnace into the walls and floors. These tiles featured distinctive patterns created by a wooden roller to help mortar stick to them. By matching patterns on fragments of hypocaust tiles found mudlarking on the Thames foreshore with those unearthed elsewhere, we can trace the movements of itinerant groups of Roman tile makers as they moved from job to job across the country.
Small sherds of Roman pottery are so common in some parts of the Thames foreshore that some mudlarks simply ignore them. In 2018, however, Ed was fortunate to discover a complete Roman pot still containing its original contents, slowly eroding from a patch of sand and gravel. Quickly realizing its significance he took it to the Museum of London the following day. The find was then X-rayed revealing it contained 18 objects including fragments of leather, bone and wood. The pot has been dated to AD 160-250 and has been deliberately pierced in three places suggesting it may have once been suspended like a hanging basket in a Roman workshop.
Hobnail Boot Soles
The oxygen-free conditions of the Thames mud mean leather is perfectly preserved until liberated from its resting place. This has allowed us to find several Roman leather boot soles with their iron hobnails still attached. These were possibly from caligae, heavy-duty boots worn by the lower ranks of Roman cavalrymen and foot-soldiers. Roman legionaries were expected to march 18.4 miles in five hours so good footwear was essential. The open design of caligae was ideal for the warm temperatures of the Mediterranean but less so for colder, wetter Britain, and they seem to have been abandoned in the province by the end of the 2nd century.
Tiles with Animal Paw Prints
It has been suggested much of the Roman building materials that can be found on the Thames foreshore arrived there as a result of 18th-century construction work. Workers digging cellars penetrated the remains of Londinium and the debris was then used to help construct wharves and docks along the river. Roof tiles are commonly found, and a surprising number of these feature animal paw prints. These prints were made by domestic and wild animals running across the tiles during manufacture as they were left outside to dry. We’ve found many tiles with dog and cat prints and also those of small rodents and otters. One dog breed that may well be represented is the Agassian, a British hunting dog famed across the Roman Empire and described by the poet Oppian of Apamea as “a strong breed of hunting dog, small in size but no less worthy of great praise. These the wild tribes of Britons with their tattooed backs rear and call by the name of Agassian. Their size is like that of worthless and greedy domestic table dogs; squat, emaciated, shaggy, dull of eye, but…for tracking it is the best there is.”
This high-quality Roman red-gloss pottery was imported into Londinium from the province of Gaul, where several hundred potters produced it. They often stamped the base of their wares with their name allowing us to identify individual makers. So far, we’ve found 15 examples of such stamps including those of Paterclus II, who worked in Gaul in the second century, Germanus, a potter working AD 65-90, and the Gessus. These make a simple pottery shard feel infinitely more personal.
Some samian was highly decorated with motifs that provide a window into Roman religious beliefs, fashion, sporting activities, and even sex lives. We’ve discovered fragments featuring the god Pan in his mythical musical duel with Apollo, gladiators, hunting dogs, and the goddess Diana. Diana was the Roman goddess of hunting, typically depicted with a bow and quiver of arrows.
In one myth, Actaeon, a young hunter, accidentally witnessed Diana bathing without invitation. In retaliation, she splashed him with water, cursing him, and transforming him into a deer. His own hunting dogs then caught his scent and tore him apart.
The Decline of Londinium
In AD 320, almost three centuries after its founding, the prospects still looked good for Londinium, but the seeds of decline had already taken root. Expansion of the Roman Empire had ceased, meaning London was less attractive to traders seeking new markets. Trade was also slowed as a result of the silting up of the Thames, so important to London’s economy. The decline of the city from provincial powerhouse to backwater was sealed, however, by the incursions of Germanic tribes into the Empire’s heartland.
In AD 409, the cities of Britain were informed Rome could no longer guarantee their defense, and the imports required to lead a Roman way of life began to decline. The withdrawal from the city was a gradual process rather than a single event, but by the mid-5th Century, Londinium was abandoned and left crumbling for the next 400 years. The modern city of London eventually grew up on the same site, but interest in Londinium only began to be sparked again as Victorian mudlarks and river dredgers began finding Roman artifacts and selling them on to antiquarians.
About the writers
Malcolm Russell (@Mud_Historian on Instagram) studied history at Sheffield University. He reconnects with his passion for the past through mudlarking.
Ed Bucknall (@Edjbucknall on Instagram) is a practicing architect and artist with a passion for all things Roman.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine January/February 2020 issue.