Curator's Choice - The Clayton Collection At Chesters Fort Museum

By 24 Hour Museum Staff | 30 April 2008
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a photograph of stome altars

The Clayton Collection, which is owned by trustees and loaned to English Heritage, has 5,500 catalogued items from a variety of sites along the central section of the Wall. © Trustees of the Clayton Collection

The Clayton Collection - The Curator's Choice

Few people today have heard of John Clayton yet he is one of the single most important individuals in the history of Hadrian’s Wall.

Were it not for this remarkbale Victorian gentleman collector and archaeologist large parts of Hadrian’s Wall would have disappeared as the industrial revolution fuelled the need for stone to build factories and mills.

Now his collection, which resides at Chesters Roman Fort Museum - adjacent to the remains of the fort, has been re-displayed in a revamped space. The Clayton Collection has 5,500 catalogued items from a variety of sites along the central section of the wall.

Below, Chesters Fort Museum curator, Georgina Plowright, explains why these are her favourite seven objects from the collection:

a portrait of a seated elderly man surrounded by carved stone artefacts

John Clayton. © Trustees of the Clayton Collection

Incense burners from Coventina’s Well near Carrawburgh Fort

The well lay within a small shrine dedicated to the goddess Coventina. She was not just a local Celtic goddess, as she is also known in France and Spain. Both burners have an inscription saying that they were made (and donated) by a man named Saturninus Gabinius.

Made of pottery with rather florid decoration, they are unique in Roman Britain. The small finds are in a case in the small gallery, and the numerous pieces of sculpture from the well are around the walls of the main gallery.

Stone altar giving the name of the first regiment stationed at Chesters

Found in the nearby river in 1978, it confirmed suspicions that the fort had originally been built for a cavalry unit. The altar shows that its name was the Ala Augusta Ob Virtutem Appelata, “the cavalry regiment called Augusta for Valour”.

It would be an honour to be called the equivalent of ‘the Emperor’s Own’. Hadrian’s name appears on the altar, confirming that it dates from the original building of Hadrian’s Wall. It is under the window in the small gallery.

a photograph of carved stone objects on shelves

Part of the re-vamped collection at the Chesters Roman Fort Museum. © Trustees of the Clayton Collection

The Carvoran Modius, a large bronze corn measure found by the postman just outside the fort at Carvoran in 1915

It has lots of mysteries – the Emperor Domitian’s name has been erased, its inscription says it contains the odd amount of 17½ sextarii which does not tie up with its estimated volume.

The most likely explanation is that it was the official measure against which a daily ration of 2½ sextarii of corn per soldier could be checked on a weekly basis, and Domitian’s name was erased as he was damned after his death.

Finds excavated by John Clayton from the Commanding Officer’s bath house in 1840

There are not many of them, and they are not all there, but when we started we didn’t know we had any of them.

The combination of the fact that the Rev. John Collingwood Bruce illustrated them in his 1851 edition of The Roman Wall, and the fact that nearly 9,000 items in the collection have been catalogued, many with illustrations on the computer catalogue, meant that previously anonymous objects could be re-identified as coming from this early excavation.

a selection of stone altar pieces on shelves

A slection of stone altars (photographed prior to their re-display) in the Clayton Collection. © Trustees of the Clayton Collection

Three stones illustrating hunting themes

They have all been very simply carved with roughly incised lines, and very much have the appearance of being doodles, perhaps of a soldier’s daydreams.

One shows two men hunting with a trident, another a man attacking a boar with a trident, and the third simply shows a fine beast, which may be a stag. They are all in different places and careful searching is needed to find them so it’s a challenge you can set the kids during a visit.

Large stone with inscription beginning AQVA ADDVCTA'

It goes on to name the Second Cavalry Regiment of Asturians, who came from North West Spain and records that they brought water to Chesters.

The brilliant part is that you can still see the end of their aqueduct where it comes in at the side of the West gate of the fort. The stone is high up on the shelves of the North wall of the big gallery.

Mr Clayton’s copy of John Collingwood Bruce’s The Roman Wall, 1867 edition

This is the third and best edition with lovely illustrations. A lot of John Clayton’s work came into the public domain through Bruce’s publications and Bruce is effusive in his dedication about the help that Clayton gave him. It is lovely to think of Mr Clayton sitting in his study leafing through this very volume.

Chesters is one of four major visitor attractions along Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site in the care of English Heritage. It welcomes around 54,000 visitors a year.

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