Roman Finds From The Foreshore

I haven’t been out mudlarking as much as I’d like during the last month or so but, when I’ve been able to make the time, I’ve been finding some splendid artefacts, some of which have been on my lengthy wish list of ‘Things I’d Love To Find On The Foreshore’ for quite some time. On one of my most recent trips the finds included three stunning Roman objects, which makes them very special. So, thank you, River Thames. I’m extremely grateful.

Londinium, or Roman London, was the capital of Roman Britain during the period of Roman rule in Britain. Early Londinium was established on the current site of the City of London in approximately 47-50 AD, or mid-1st century, and was roughly half the area of the current City of London.

Archaeologists are still arguing about the precise date but it’s believed that in 60 AD a rebellion by Boudicca (or Boadicea), leader of the Iceni, resulted in newly established Roman London being torched to the ground. Excavations show clear traces of burnt soil from this period at a layer synonymous with Roman London, indicating how savage Boudicca’s assault was. The Roman response to her revolt was typically brutal and she was eventually defeated by the Roman governor Gaius Suetonius. It’s not clear whether Boudicca then killed herself, as thought by Tacitus, or died of severe wounds, as documented by Cassius Dio. Nonetheless, archaeological evidence is clear that this was a horrifically violent period of early London’s history.

Roman Wharf Timber at St Magnus The Martyr, Lower Thames Street

After this grim period the City of London had to be rebuilt and it expanded rapidly. Its location on the Thames, at a key crossing point over the river, contributed to it becoming a major port enabling it to trade easily with the rest of the Roman Empire and further afield. The rebuilt Londinium was provided with large public buildings, most of which have sadly long since disappeared, such the forum and amphitheatre, and also a London Wall to define the landward side of the city, some of which can still be seen today near the Museum of London.

Roman London was at its height during the second century AD but then the population began to shrink again. By the 5th century, with very few Roman troops left in Britain, Londinium and other Romano-British towns began to decline drastically, buildings and infrastructure falling into ruin and decay. Trade broke down as the Roman Empire began to collapse, for reasons still argued about by historians, but attacks by barbarian tribes and famine were clear contributory factors. Over the next century Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians arrived from Northern Europe and began to establish tribal areas and Kingdoms while Londinium fell further into decay.

It wasn’t until the Viking invasions of England in the 9th century that King Alfred the Great resurrected the settlement within the old Roman London Walls. At its height, Roman London had been a very ethnically diverse city with inhabitants from across the entirety of the Roman Empire – as well as Britons, there were folk from Continental Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

When considering its relationship with the river as it is today, the embankment during the Roman period was located on Lower Thames Street, much further back than it is now. For those interested in the history of the Roman Port of London the evidence is still there to be seen, and to this end I highly recommend a visit to the beautiful old church of St Magnus the Martyr on Lower Thames Street. Not only does it contain an archway that was once one of the pedestrian entrances to the Medieval London Bridge, but attached to one of its ancient stone walls as you enter is a nearly 2,000 year old piece of timber that gives me the shivers every time I come to see it.

It’s a segment of an old Roman Wharf dating from 75 AD, and found on Fish Street Hill in 1931. Many visitors to the church just walk straight past it but, if you happen to be in the area, please stop and give it a stroke. You are literally touching a piece of Roman London. If you’d like to read about this in greater depth I recommend a book called ‘The Port of Roman London’ by Gustav Milne. Gustav is a MOLA and Citizan archaeologist who first introduced me to this timber when a group of us did our FROG (Foreshore Recording and Observation Group) training with the archaeologists at Thames Discovery Programme (TDP) in 2018. Prior to this I didn’t even know the wharf timber existed. It’s a beautifully tactile piece of wood and very special.

Roman Wharf Timber at St Magnus The Martyr Church

Roman era artefacts from the river are very special and I recently made an absolute dream find on the Thames Foreshore; a Roman hair pin made of bone. On a day when the low tide wasn’t particularly good due to an unexpected storm surge in the Thames Estuary, I wasn’t expecting to discover anything of consequence. Which is absolutely fine; it’s what sometimes happens. But that then made it even sweeter when I spotted this beauty poking out from the gravel and stones, trapped in their rocky embrace.

Roman hair pin, found recently on the Thames Foreshore

Pins during the Roman period, whether Romano-Britain or elsewhere in the vast Roman Empire, were an essential part of a high status woman’s coiffure, especially as hair styles during this period of history were highly elaborate and complicated. The idea of ‘Wash’n’Go’ would have given a wealthy Roman woman a fit of the vapours. Natural hairstyles were associated with barbarian tribes who the Romans believed hadn’t the money or culture to style their tresses properly.

A Roman woman’s hair was twisted and coiled, then pinned to keep the complicated, elaborately curled shape. Hair pins from this period have been found in a wide range of materials, from wooden pins for poorer women to ones made of gold, bronze, glass or decorated bone for high status women.

Some pins were hugely ornate in design while others were simpler and plainer.

Roman hair pin, made of bone

Bone pins came in a variety of different lengths from short to very long. I suspect a small bit of my pin find might have broken off at some point as it seems to be missing a possible half to one centimetre at the tip, yet it still remains functional.

The importance of highly elaborate hairstyles for wealthy Roman women came with a very dark side. Wigs and other hair pieces were very popular and fashionable – blonde hair from females of conquered Germanic tribes being highly prized as was black hair from India.

The photo below shows a marble bust featuring a typically ostentatious hairstyle worn by a wealthy woman from the Flavian period, 69 -96 AD. The bust is thought to be Julia, daughter of Emperor Titus, and it shows a literal beehive of dramatic curls stacked high on Julia’s head. Her hair would have taken hours to style.

Bust thought to be of Julia, daughter of Emperor Titus

Another recent dream find, and which might not appear to be that extraordinary on first viewing but is special to me, is this sherd of Samian ware pottery. Sherds of Roman Samian always bring a smile to my face, especially as they turn up much less frequently on the foreshore these days. Decorated fragments are a particular bonus.

Samian ware, or Terra Sigillata, was a fine tableware characterised by a vibrant glossy-red slip that was fired in both plain and decorated forms. The decorative Samian ware often shows a range of designs from flowers and foliage to hunting scenes, created by moulding onto the main body of the bowl.

Sherd of rare etched, not moulded, Samian ware pottery

Samian ware was mass-produced, the finished pieces often showing manufacturers’ stamps which help identify date and distribution. It was found throughout the Roman Empire, originally manufactured during Augustine’s reign in Arretium (Arezzo) in Italy before production moved elsewhere, particularly to Gaul, modern day France. Eventually, by the second century, Samian pottery was being produced in Roman Britain itself, principally in Pulborough in Sussex, Colchester in Essex and also in London itself. But it was generally of a poorer quality than its Gaulish counterpart.

Samian ware bowl with mould-relief decoration

I am grateful to fellow mudlark, artist and architect Ed Bucknall (please follow Ed on Instagram @edjbucknall) for his huge knowledge of Roman finds from the river. Ed immediately recognised that my piece of found Samian ware is from a more unusual type than is normally spotted in the Thames, ie, an Antonine period import.

The Antonine era of the Roman Empire spanned from 96-192 AD during which time a total of seven emperors ruled – Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Verus and Commodus. The first five were known as the ‘Five Good Emperors’, although the murder of the last of them, the feeble Commodus in 192 AD, is thought to have signalled the beginning of the decline of the Roman Empire.

And this sherd is different when compared with other, more common types of Samian ware found at low tide. It has a pattern of incised leaves, produced in a similar style to etching on glass, and it’s likely the complete item would have shown roundels featuring floral motifs and tendrils, flanked by leaves, such as in my example.

Examples of Samian ware with incised decoration
Tiny Roman glass bead

Last but not least, the final item in my trio of recent Thames Roman finds is this tiny, pale green/yellow bead, made of glass. Foreshore beads are notoriously difficult to date. On land, archaeologists analyse the order and position of layers of archaeological remains to help them place artefacts in an accurate historical context. This is known as stratigraphy. But in the mud of the river it’s much harder (though not impossible) to pin down the precise provenance of an artefact because the movement of the tides will wash items in from further afield. Nonetheless, it’s perfectly appropriate to assume that when a find is spotted in an area of the Thames where Roman artefacts routinely turn up at low tide, and we know was busy with activity during the peak of Londinium’s importance, the chances of it being Roman are high.

The colour, irregularity and general rough feel of this small glass bead definitely indicate Roman to me.

6 thoughts on “Roman Finds From The Foreshore

  1. I did enjoy this article and the informative history you gave on the finds. Being born in pre-war Deptford I have a particular affinity with that part of the Thames and although I no longer live in the UK, I relate with pleasure to its past. Thank you so much!

    Valerie Nordberg

    Sent from my iPad


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Valerie. I must return to the Deptford foreshore soon as I haven’t been back there for a while. Such an atmospheric place with a fascinating ship/dockyard history.


  2. Thank you for such an interesting history lesson. I’m in Australia, and we did very little Roman history at school.
    My son has an office in London and he spotted a man in wellies and carrying a metal dectector close to the banks of the Thames, the other day.
    Keep up the good work

    Liked by 1 person

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