Fractured Britannia: Material Culture And The End Of The Roman Empire

A talk given by Richard Henry, Reading University Doctoral Candidate, on Saturday 18th March 2023.

Richard is a finds specialist working part time for both Southampton City Council and at Reading University where he is reviewing late Roman objects within the archaeological record to discover what they can tell us about the end of Roman Britain, a period for which there is scant historical record.  Richard’s analysis is spatial, including by object type, typologies, decorative elements, and social, i.e., site types, which fall into military and urban sites (civitas centres and large towns) and nucleated and rural sites (defended and undefended vici).

The talk started with some rhetorical questions such as, ‘Why the end of Roman Britain?’ and, ‘Was it a catastrophic collapse?’ and looked at the key historical events in Britain in the late 4th and early 5th centuries A.D.  Wales may have been de-garrisoned under Magnus Maximus (383-388 A.D.) and, therefore, the end of the Roman era would have been different in the different areas of Britain.

To understand the end of Roman Britain we need to understand how it was governed.  The Roman state was mainly interested in itself, and to run it needed the army, taxation, and a civil bureaucracy.  The Notitia Dignitatum provides a snapshot of the army and administration at the turn of the 5th century.

Around 390 A.D. there was no such thing as the army in Britain.  There were 3 commands; the Dux Britanniarium (North Britain and Hadrian’s Wall); the Comes littoris Saxonici (Count of the Saxon Shore); and the Comes Britanniarium (the field army with no permanent bases).

For the administration of Britain, the Count of the Sacred Largesses supervised two rationales.  One was responsible for processing tax, the other for the Imperial estates.  They also supervised the treasury (based in London and overseen by a praepostius), and the state run fabricae producing woollen goods in Venta Icenorum.

The Praetorian Prefect of the Gauls supervised the vicarius of the diocese, the praesides, the consularis, and below, and was responsible for the recruitment of the army, supply, and the post.

At this time Britain was divided into four provinces, the capitals of which were, York, Lincoln, London, and Cirencester.  Much of the provinces was rural and a patchwork of villages, roadside settlements, farmsteads, and villas.

Servants of the state were paid in tax and coins, stipends, and donatives.  Tax was paid primarily in kind or in gold.  Copper alloy coins are regular finds in many areas of Britain, they were central to the collection of tax.

In the Roman Empire bureaucrats ranked as soldiers and wore the military belt.  The civil service was substantially larger but performed key roles.  Primarily it was comprised of the ‘State’ and local elites.

Crossbow brooches were attached to a cloak and worn on the right shoulder.  They are linked with the military and administration, marking the status of the wearer.  Most of these brooches were produced on the continent in state fabricae and have been divided into five broad types based on the method of manufacture and form: 1, 2, 3/4, 5 and 6.  Type 1 was prevalent from 290-320 A.D., type 3/4  from 325-410 A.D., and type 6 from 390-460 A.D.  The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) database records 404 crossbow brooches.  There are only a few examples post-dating 350 A.D. from Hadrian’s Wall, which may indicate changes in supply, and there is a major variation in the distribution of crossbow brooches between military and all other site types which may indicate a distinction between the military and the administration.  Type 6 is concentrated in the south and east.

From all the major studies into belt sets Richard has grouped them into four broad types: 

Type I (370-390 A.D.) and Type II (350-370 A.D.) for both of which there are Continental and insular examples; and Type III  and Type IV (both from 390 A.D. onwards) of which there are only Continental examples.  Nonetheless, the latter have been found in Britain, but they are unusual which may indicate high status.  Type IA were made in Britain and may have been for civilian use only as very few have been found on military sites.  Type IB have horses heads on the buckles and at 15 mm are very thin, so they may have been shoulder belts.  Type II had up to 10 propeller stiffeners and were buckled, but the ends were folded over the belt and displayed.  Most Type I (A&B) have been found under a line drawn from the Humber to the Severn.

Rivet spurs were new objects at the end of the 4th century.  They are rare and usually only found by metal detecting.  Type C was from Pannonia, i.e., the eastern settlements, and has only been found in major towns here.  Type D was the western provincial type, but only 40 have been found and their distribution, mainly on Deere Street between Lincoln and York, is entirely different to everything else.

All the mints north of the Alps producing copper alloy coin closed c. 395 A.D.  Nummi were still produced in Rome but were extremely rare.  Their chronic supply shortages had implications for the late Roman taxation system.  Some 500,000 coins have been found and recorded on the (PAS) database from sites rather than from hoards but to be included in this study sites must have a minimum of 25 coins recorded.  Research shows that different types of sites of social analysis behave differently.

All military sites decline in coinage from 350 A.D.  Coinage on urban sites increases around 260 A.D. due to the radian.  Walled small towns have lots of Theodosian coins.  But there is no good dating evidence to show when the use of coins stopped.

Silver siliquae are regular finds at rural sites across the main coin using areas of Britain.  They are less common at urban and military sites.  By the 450s A.D. coin usage had certainly ceased.  Existing coins were clipped and therefore used as bullion.

To conclude we were shown distribution maps for the finds of crossbow brooches, belt sets, rivet spurs, coins, and clipped coins in the very late 4th and early 5th centuries.  Except for the rivet spurs, which were found predominantly on Deere Street between Lincoln and York, the other items were found in south-east England in the area from Dorset to The Wash, and then up the north-east coast to Hadrian’s Wall.  A buckle from a Type 4 belt set with a repaired plate found in Blacknall Field would imply that these items retained value for a long time.  There was not one particular end, but a change of usage of these items over time and  by 450 A.D. things had certainly changed.

report by Julie Worsfold