Recording Roman graffiti near Hadrian’s Wall

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Inscriptions from the Roman quarry, which are thought to have been made by a detachment from the Second Legion under the junior officer Agricola. (PHOTO: Historic England)

Rare examples of graffiti, made by the Roman army while they were repairing and rebuilding Hadrian’s Wall, have been recorded in a Cumbrian quarry associated with the monument’s construction. Dating to the early 3rd century AD, these inscriptions have survived for more than 1,800 years, but gradual erosion of the soft sandstone into which they were cut has put them under threat. In an effort to save the graffiti before they are lost, they are being documented by Newcastle University archaeologists in a project funded by Historic England.

Although the quarry face, known as ‘the Written Rock of Gelt’, was first rediscovered in the 16th century by William Camden and his friend Julius Cotton, its graffiti have never been fully recorded until now. The carvings offer a unique look into the lives of Roman soldiers in this period. In many instances, the specific names of men are present, sometimes with their rank and military unit, making them important historical sources. There is even an inscription possibly referring to the consulate of Aper and Maximus (AD 207).

Until the collapse of a footpath in the 1980s, the site used to be easily viewed by the public. But now that land access is restricted, in order to record the graffiti archaeologists have had to descend 30ft down the quarry face using ropes and pulleys. They then used structure-from-motion (SfM) photogrammetry to produce a 3D record of the carvings, digitally preserving them and allowing for closer analysis. This record will also give archaeologists a better idea of their condition, and of what might be done to slow down or stop the erosion.

‘These inscriptions at Gelt Forest are probably the most important on the Hadrian’s Wall frontier,’ said Mike Collins, Inspector of Ancient Monuments for Hadrian’s Wall at Historic England. ‘They provide insight into the organisation of the vast construction project that Hadrian’s Wall was, as well as some very human and personal touches, such as the caricature of their commanding officer that was inscribed by one group of soldiers.’

Once it is finished, the 3D model will be made available to everyone on Sketchfab. We will bring you more information on the graffiti in a future issue of CA.

This article appeared in CA 350.

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