Roman York in the Yorkshire Museum

The Yorkshire Museum in York is one the best repositories of Roman artefacts in the UK. This chapter offers a tour of the place, highlighting some of the museum’s most striking and significant exhibits.

Perhaps the Yorkshire Museum exhibit with the most impact is, as mentioned briefly above, a preserved head of hair, with jet hairpins and cantharus-shaped heads in situ, from a fourth-century inhumation burial found at the railway station booking office site. The hair is fashioned into a loose bun. It is exhibits like this which bring Roman York to life, allowing you to experience day-to-day living and to get inside the lives of the Romans.

On hairstyles generally, the Julia Velva tombstone shows Julia and her daughter both with a middle parting fixed into a roll framing the face, ears covered, and hair drawn back and tied at the nape of the neck, maybe in a bun. A tombstone of about the same date honouring Candida is markedly different: her ears are exposed, the parting is on the left. Empress Julia Domna’s visit to York will have started a craze for Syrian hair styles, which meant hair hanging in crimped waves on either side of the face and gathered back into a roll at the back. The mid-third century saw a variation in the arrival of the Syrian ‘helmet style’ in which, like a crested helmet, the waves were worn clear of the ears but the hair at the back was carried in a single strip or a band of small plaits straight up the back of the head from the nape to the crown. This can be seen on an anonymous woman’s head found in Fishergate (Corpus Signorum Imperii Romani – CSIR 1.3, #7) and adopted by Aelia Aeliana and her daughter (RIB 682).

Empresses, however, did not have a monopoly on hair styles. Celtic fashion prevails with York’s Decimina and her wavy hair parted in the middle and fashioned in two long braids loose down her back, partly over her ears. Sepronia Martina’s hair is long and loose while her mother, Julia Brica, wears her hair without a parting and tied back at the nape. The anonymous woman on a Micklegate tombstone has shoulder length hair (CSIR 1,3 # 54). York can boast a burial in which auburn ringlets have been found.

Other fascinating exhibits include:

‘Millefiori’ is Italian for 1,000 flowers. It denotes the fine and beautiful decoration formed by joining and stretching coloured strips of glass which are then cut to reveal a pattern. You can see an example of this on a Roman soldier’s belt plate – third-century military ‘bling’. This was found at 9 Blake Street.

Julius Alexander’s salve for irritations: this domino-sized piece of stone found on the Mount is engraved with the words ‘Julius Alexander’s salve for irritations’. The words are in reverse, indicating that the stone was used in printing, and is one of only sixty such stamps found worldwide.

A water bucket found on Skeldergate, close to the River Ouse, near a 6 metre wood-lined well.

An unusual roofed coffin using roof tiles.

Two splendid vases; the one celebrating a good harvest, the other Dionysius – god of wine and orgiastic behaviour. Both were found in Apulia, Italy.

The magnificent head of Caracalla who came with his father, Septimius Severus, to Eboracum to learn how to be an emperor.

An example of a bronze diploma awarded to a retiring soldier. This granted citizenship and the right to marry to a soldier in the Fifth Cohort Raetorum under the command of Sextus Cornelius Dexter from Saldae in Mauretania.

A fragment showing two gladiators fighting, in incredible detail.

Another Mars, very different from the one in the doorway. As god of war it was extremely important to keep Mars on side to ensure victory and survival in battle.

Two examples of Lares – household gods – which were religiously observed in order to bring good fortune and safety to the household; they were integrated into the roofwork of the house.

The skull of a carnivorous man from a warm country. Osteoarchaeology tells us from his teeth and bones that this man, found in York at Trentholme Drive in 1951, was a meat-eater and lived in a warm climate – perhaps a Berber from Numidia travelling the empire as a mosaic maker from North Africa, the place where some of the finest Roman mosaics survive?

Another star exhibit is the large head of Constantine found in Stonegate.

We also can see a fan or parasol handle with an ivory catch with ivory ribs forming the frame protected by silver sheathing; the fan itself was probably made from leather. There are also lamps, keys, spoons and combs as well as pins and brooches and a lot of ceramics. The bone plaque inscribed ‘Lord Victor, good luck and victory’ found on the skeleton of a gladiator or charioteer is, of course, pagan.

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