Rare Roman Cavalry Tombstone Acquired By Lancaster Museum

By Richard Moss | 14 November 2006
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photograph of a broken tombstone with a carving of a roman soldier on horseback carrying a sword and severed head

The massive stone, almost two metres in height, depicts a ‘Curator’ – a quarter master or junior officer - of the ala Augusta riding with the severed head of a barbarian enemy in his hand. © Lancashire Museums

A carved Roman cavalry tombstone discovered on a Lancaster building site in 2005 has been acquired by Lancashire Museums and is set to be displayed to the public in a Lancaster Museum.

The piece was discovered by the Manchester Archaeology Unit during routine investigations of a building site in Lancaster and has been described by experts as ‘unique’ and of ‘considerable archaeological importance’. Its position suggested that it lay in what had once been a ditch alongside the Roman road into Lancaster.

Having generated considerable interest, both in the UK and from abroad, there had however been fears that the piece may be bought by a foreign museum or collector.

Now, after securing the financial support of a number of funding bodies including the Heritage Lottery Fund, the V&A-MLA Purchase Grant Fund and the Haverfield Bequest, the remarkable tombstone is to be conserved, researched and eventually displayed, near to where it was found, at Lancaster City Museum.

a photograph of a stone slab with a latin inscription on it

The inscription includes the phrase ‘EQUES’ which translates as mounted soldier or trooper. © Lancashire Museums

“I am delighted that an important piece of Lancaster’s history has been secured and that Lancaster people will be able to see for themselves this link with the city’s Roman past,” said Ian Barker, Leader of Lancaster City Council.

The tombstone is of the kind commonly described as a ‘reiter’ or ‘rider’ type that bear a relief depicting a mounted cavalryman in action. Some, like the present example, show a fallen barbarian at the feet of the horse. Only a dozen such stones have been found in the UK

At almost six feet in height, the massive stone clearly depicts a carved Roman cavalryman riding with the severed head of a barbarian enemy in his hand. A Latin inscription reveals the cavalryman to be Insus Vodullus, an ‘eques’ or mounted trooper of the auxiliary cavalry unit ala Augusta. His decapitated victim is revealed as a citizen of the Treveri tribe, from the Trier area of western Germany.

a photograph of two men on a building site looking at a large carved stone on the ground

The stone was discovered during the routine investigations of a building site by Manchester Archaeology Unit in November 2005. © Lancashire Museums

Though the stone bears no clear date, such as the year of the emperor’s reign in which it was erected, circumstantial evidence points to a date somewhere between 75 and AD 125. Most similar stones are from the first century AD and the unit name has been previously associated with the North West of England during the latter part of this period.

But what makes the stone particularly interesting to archaeologists is its condition. When first examined in situ, red dye was still apparent highlighting the inscription whilst the carved image was virtually unweathered. The head of the Roman cavalryman had also, like his barbarian victim, been decapitated and was discovered only a yard away.

Speculation has suggested that the stone was deliberately thrown down and the rider’s head broken off as an act of deliberate revolt or vandalism shortly after it was erected. Another theory is that the removal of the head is an echo of Druidic or other religious practice in the form of ‘head cults’.

a photograph of men on a building site looking at a ditch with a stone wall on each side of it

The position of the stone suggested that it lay in what had once been a ditch alongside the Roman road into Lancaster. © Lancashire Museums

Stephen Bull, author and curator of Military History and Archaeology at the Lancashire Museum in Preston said the stone was “...a crucial insight into the history of the county and an iconic piece of Lancaster’s dramatic past. The carving and inscription will add detail to what we know about the Roman Auxiliary Cavalry and its equipment.”

Whatever future examinations reveal, the beheading of Vodullus and his historic adversary makes the Lancaster stone one of the most vivid contemporary depictions of Roman Britain in existence - and an exhibit that will doubtless become a highlight of the collection at Lancaster Museum.

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