What was it that compelled someone 1,800 years ago to pile the contents of a workshop at a Northumberland Roman fort into a wooden chest and bury it – never to return?
This week sees the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the chest, which has been described as one of the most remarkable Roman finds of the last century.
It appears that whoever was in charge of the workshop in the AD120s at Corbridge fort packed the iron-bound, leather-covered chest with armour, weapons, tools and personal items.
Traces of a papyrus sheet indicate that the chest may have also contained a note, perhaps explaining the circumstances to the finder.
The only snag was that it would be almost 2,000 years before the contents of the chest would be revealed once more.
A university dig uncovered the chest in 1964 in excavations on the site of what is now English Heritage’s Corbridge Roman town.
The hoard is on display at the site, where Roman collections curator Frances McIntosh will mark the anniversary with a series of talks today and tomorrow at the site at 11am, noon, 2pm, 3pm and 4pm.
Kevin Booth, English Heritage senior curator for the north, says: “When the hoard was discovered, it was like finding a time capsule. It was a stunningly-preserved piece of history, found in an iron-bound wooden chest which revealed a great deal about our Roman ancestors.
“The chest had been carefully packed, fitting a large amount of miscellaneous material inside. Modules of Roman armour had been wrapped in cloth, compressed and stacked in one corner.
“Bundles of spearheads, their wooden shafts broken off, were tied together with twine. Tools and other implements were neatly gathered.”
What makes the Corbridge hoard even more important is that it included sections of Roman segmented armour. This gave experts a crucial insight into how the armour worked.
The chest contained armour for the chest, shoulder and upper arm, with evidence for the leather straps and hoops which allowed the segments to flex and move with the body.
Until the Corbridge discovery, segmented armour had only been understood through its representation on sculpture, wall paintings and through description in classical texts. Kevin says: “The physical survival of armour, with mineralised evidence for leather straps, bronze fittings, damage and repair has allowed specialists to identify different types, to understand how it fitted together and was worn, and analyse how successful it was.”
It was likely that each set of armour could be adjusted and altered to ensure a comfortable fit for the soldier.
Also packed into the chest was a copper alloy sword scabbard, whose shape suggests it was for a cavalryman’s weapon.
There were also 46 spearheads, many tied together with cord into bundles and retaining the broken ends of wooden shafts, deliberately snapped off to make storage more convenient.
A bolt from a floor-mounted catapult was packed, as was the socketed head of a pilum, or heavy javelin. The iron shank would bend on impact preventing it from being picked up and thrown back.
Tools included an oak pulley block, an oil-burning lamp, an iron saw and an iron knife was a bone handle.
The saw had been wrapped in cloth woven into a diamond twill. Similar cloth has been found at Vindolanda fort in Northumberland.
Among personal items were 23 black and white gaming counters, and an iron bowl which would have been more robust in a soldier’s kit bag than a ceramic pot.
One of the most intriguing objects was a large wooden tankard, reinforced by bands of copper alloy and iron hoops, of a type which suggests it pre-dated Roman culture.
There were also fragments of wax writing tablets, made out of larch, maple, silver fir and sweet chestnut.
The chest itself was made from alder wood, with the corners strengthened by iron braces and apparently covered by leather, perhaps as water-proofing. It was further reinforced by iron strips.
Chair fittings indicate that the fort workshop produced more than military equipment. Finally, there was a jumble of items which may have been broken, awaiting repair, kept for spares or earmarked for recycling.
“It is something which everyone does. It is like somebody’s garage or shed shelves,” says Kevin.
“It is as if, once the chest had been carefully packed with useful things, the owner simply swept the rest of his cupboards clean tipping any last bits and bobs in and pushing the lid shut.
“It seems remarkable that so much of the hoard has survived having been in the ground for 1,800 years.
“Soon after being buried the condition of the chest and its contents would have begun to deteriorate. Most delicate, and the first the decay, were the organic materials – leather, textiles, wood and bone.
“Remarkably fragments of these survive, not as actual objects, but as a mineralised ghost of the original. The process of decay in the metal artefacts produced corrosion products which adopted the form the decaying organic items closest to them.”
The general theory is that the chest was buried after the troops were told they were moving north.
“They would not want to hump material like this with them into Scotland,” says Kevin.
“Hoards generally are fascinating. What were the thought processes of whoever filled the chest?
“Why did he never come back? Did he not survive?”