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Hadrian’s Wall home to families not just military men says English Heritage

Curator of Roman collections at Corbridge Roman Town Frances McIntosh with cremation jugs from Birdoswald cemetery.

[P]reviously unseen Roman cremation urns containing the remains of a young woman and a five year old child will go on display at Birdoswald Roman Fort, today (Friday 27th April).  Discovered just outside the fort, the remains of what may be a mother and child challenge the assumption that Hadrian’s Wall was exclusively the preserve of military men.

At the same time as Birdoswald Roman Fort re-opens, infants’ feeding bottles, remnants of a doll, a bone whistle and evidence of board games will also go on display at nearby Corbridge Roman Town as part of a combined £1.8m English Heritage investment.  Together, both Roman sites will bring to life the stories of people – men, women and children – who lived and died on the Roman Empire’s north western frontier.

Although buried separately outside Birdoswald Roman Fort, the graves of the woman and child were joined together, indicating a very close relationship such that they could even be mother and child.  Analysis of the child’s tooth suggests s/he was around five, and the woman is thought to have been in her twenties or thirties.  Discovered during a rare cemetery excavation in 2009, grave goods were also found in the urn with the woman, remarkably, a section of iron chain mail from armour has been identified.  Normally indicating a male burial, this discovery has left archaeologists puzzling over its meaning.

English Heritage Curator of Roman Collections, Frances McIntosh said: “Alongside its military function, Hadrian’s Wall was a thriving centre of everyday life.  Even though ordinary Roman soldiers weren’t officially allowed to marry until 197AD, a blind eye was often turned and many wives and children would have lived there, alongside a large community of civilians which sprung up to service the forts.  The discovery of this woman and child is fascinating, it leaves us with questions about how they were related, and why she was buried with armour, but it also reminds us how rich and diverse the story of life on Hadrian’s’ Wall is, something which our new exhibitions at Birdoswald and Corbridge will highlight.”

At Corbridge Roman Town, new research has enabled experts to better understand what this town, the most northerly in the Roman Empire, would have actually looked like. English Heritage has included the new visualisation as part of its re-presentation of the museum, which houses the largest collection of Roman finds on Hadrian’s Wall, including the world famous Corbridge Hoard. Alongside the children’s games and toys, another highlight is an exquisite perfume vase, in impeccable condition which will go on display for the first time.  Likely to have contained precious oils such as frankincense or the indulgent fragrance of rose water, this beautiful blue enamelled copper vessel belonged to a high status woman. The research behind the new exhibition at Corbridge has called into question the established chronology for the site and debunked archaeological myths, giving visitors a fascinating insight into the ordinary people of Corbridge, their lives and the changes they saw between 150AD – 410 AD.

At Birdoswald Roman Fort a new permanent exhibition tells the story of the garrison and its support communities, providing a number of interactive experiences especially designed for families, including a have-a-go crane which demonstrates the expertise that was required to build the wall, and a periscope so visitors can see the same view as the Roman look-outs. Outside visitors can take part in a new clue-cracking trail and appreciate the location of the fort which sits on the longest continuous section of Hadrian’s Wall.  New facilities including education rooms, a café and shop complete the experience.

The new permanent exhibitions at Birdoswald Roman Fort and Corbridge Roman Town are open daily from Friday 27th April.

For more information visit www.english-heritage.org.uk/hadrianswall

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