Soldiers and their barracks

A soldier on campaign would have slept in a tent (papillo) made of goat skin, but in more permanent quarters, he would have lived in a barrack block.

Long L-shaped barrack ranges are a familiar feature of Roman forts. A large house which projected out at one end of the block would have housed the commander of the contingent, normally either a centurion (if it was an infantry unit) or a decurion (if cavalry). The soldiers would then have lived in blocks within the barracks. An eight man infantry section (contubernium) would have occupied each two room block, and probably used one room for sleeping and the other for other purposes such as storing equipment.

Cavalry barracks look the same in plan, but their internal organisation was different: one room for three troopers, and back to back with it, another room for three of their mounts. Many first and second century barracks had a veranda where soldiers could sit and work while sheltered from the elements.

In the video we see a reconstructed barracks from the third century, as displayed at Arbeia Roman Fort in South Shields. You will notice that this particular barrack type does not have a veranda, or a projecting officer’s house, but the internal divisions of the building are similar to those used in earlier periods – a larger quarters for an officer at one end, and blocks of two rooms each running along the rest of the building.

There is still a lot that we don’t know about the internal organisation of Roman barracks, and our ignorance is compounded by the fact that soldiers probably varied their organisation of these spaces. Future excavation work will no doubt help us understand the arrangements better. Crucial clues as to how the occupants lived will come from the study of the remaining structures and the artefacts found within.

The video contains a number of examples of barrack buildings from the frontier zone in an attempt to help understand how they were used. We will talk more about some of the artefacts and their significance later.

Vessels for food and drink on the frontier

Perhaps one of the most hackneyed clichés about archaeology concerns pots. The archaeologist is seen as someone who scrambles about gathering broken vessels and then sticks them back together.

Well yes, and no. The truth of the matter is that Roman archaeologists are looking for more than a jigsaw puzzle when they study pottery and glassware. Aside from any aesthetic appeal, there is a huge amount one can learn from both.

Pottery combines two extremely important qualities. Firstly, It is made of fired clay, fragments of which will survive millennia when other types of archaeological evidence do not. Secondly as pottery vessels are eminently breakable and their fragments hard to recycle we find them liberally discarded on many sites.

Close study of the vessel form (shape), its fabric (the clay from which it is made) and its decoration allow us not only to date the vessels (thus helping date the objects and features with which they are associated) but also to reconstruct the networks of communication and exchange that brought them to the site. Ceramic petrological analysis of the fabric, for example, allows us to determine the source of clay used to make the pots.

Glass, whilst more likely to be recycled in ancient times, still survives in large quantities. The very presence of glass on the northern frontier testifies to a revolution, as it was not made in northern Britain prior to the arrival of Rome. Interestingly though, once it did arrive, indigenous artisans were quick to learn how to melt it down and model it into the distinctive types of adornment that their people sought.

With both pottery and glass,we can attempt statistical analysis to determine the relative quantity of different types of vessels. Use-wear analysis can help identify their functions. This involves microscopic analysis of the objects to help determine precisely how they were used. Surprisingly, in many cases we are still uncertain as to how otherwise familiar vessel types were actually used. Both the use patterns and the source of these vessels can offer important clues about the cosmopolitan nature of the frontier.

In this video we take a brief look at the range of drinking vessels by the units garrisoning the frontier.

© Newcastle University

Belts, brooches and late Roman soldiers

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