New Gallery: Roman Frontier Gallery, Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle
The pavements outside Tullie House’s beautiful old building, in Castle Street, once played host to Roman posties.
Just 20 years after the marauding channel-hoppers had arrived in Carlisle, in around AD 72, letters were being peacefully shuttled between correspondents in the Cumbria settlement.
The tablets they were written on serve as handy evidence of the earliest examples of handwriting, forming part of a gripping new gallery in a cavern beneath the doors they were delivered to almost 2,000 years ago.
The new £1.4 million gallery begins with a triumvirate of talismanic heads – Vespasian, the Godfather of modern Carlisle who was in charge when the Romans arrived; Hadrian, whose mighty wall aimed to perturb barbarians with designs on his empire, and Severus, the Libyan Emperor whose final flourish was an attempt to invade Scotland comparable with the 21st century invasion of Afghanistan.
Their casts perch beneath a five-minute film which zips from Julius Caesar to the time of the Roman departure from Carlisle at the beginning of the 5th century.
Next to it, in a darkened corner, there is a panel briefly nodding to the Crosby Garrett Helmet, the sports cavalry bronze which a spirited bid by the museum failed to save when it was flogged to a private bidder for £2.3 million at the end of 2010.
In its place, the astonishingly eerie Nijmegen Helmet broods inside a dimly-lit case, procured from the Valkhof Museum in a deal which encapsulates the collaborations which have resulted in a selection as enthralling as any historic collection across the country.
The Great North Museum in Newcastle, which stands as the other bookend on the Roman trail of the north, has provided several of them, including plaster copies for an “evidence wall” detailing how inscriptions are deciphered, and the British Museum remains a key partner of the display, contributing slabs so huge they had to be moved in by the London institution’s own team.
If you’ve never envisaged a link between Carlisle and, say, ancient Macedonia, then a colourful map illustrates the staggering scale of an empire united under one of the earliest monetary systems.
In fact, in enterprises with obvious parallels to the oil-chasers of today, the Romans came to Carlisle in pursuit of silver, and their armies were eye-wateringly expensive to maintain – a tentload of Romans required dozens of goats and thousands of kilograms of grain to sustain themselves on brownfield sites, let alone financial backing from an empire which stationed 55,000 troops in Britain.
Their domiciles are illustrated through unbeatable old-fashioned models and a tent you can tunnel through, and the more glamorous artefacts make for incredible viewing, from Romano bricks to altars made by German soldiers for Celtic deities, ornate jewellery, decadent glass bottles and exotic cups, spoons, cooking pots and knife handles.
There’s a skeleton of a murdered Roman, Swiss and African tombstones from Hadrian’s Wall and insights into the drunken hedonism the roads heading south would frequently bear witness to, as well as items from the origins of language, writing, medicine and ornaments from an age which saw off 70 emperors in 400 years.
With the weight of the British Museum behind them the curators could have filled the space several times over with Iron Age goodies, but they’ve kept it Cumbrian by sticking almost exclusively to exhibits relating to local legions. Highly accessible, enlightening and cleverly pitched, this is a real adventure.