Unique Roman ring uncovered on community dig in South Tyneside

The ingenious item, which belonged to a woman or child and found on a community dig, doubles as a jewellery box key

Diggers Rachel Marshall, with the keyring and Paul Cox and the key found at Benwell
Diggers Rachel Marshall, with the keyring and Paul Cox and the key found at Benwell

History has shown that the Romans had a lot of bright ideas, from roads and baths to central heating and loos.

Now another has come to light in a community dig on Tyneside.

Volunteers with the WallQuest project have unearthed a woman’s finger ring which doubles as a key.

The find was made on the dig site immediately outside the Roman fort of Arbeia in South Shields.

It is thought that the what is literally a key-ring would have opened the owner’s jewellery box.

A tombstone at South Shields to Regina, the wife of Barates, a Syrian trader at the fort, shows her with a jewellery box at her side,

“The ring meant that the owner always carried the key to their precious possessions with them and never lost it,” said Nick Hodgson, WallQuest project manager.

“It is a good idea and it would be a seller today.”

WallQuest in run by Tyne Wear Archives and Museums and involves volunteers on projects along 30 miles of Hadrian’s Wall from Tyneside to Hexham.

The tiny finger ring is in contrast to the large latch key discovered in a dig in 1937 at Condercum Roman fort in Benwell in Newcastle before homes were built across part of the site.

Finds from that dig were never published and were stored away.

Now they are being examined for the first time in more than 70 years by the WallQuest project.

“The pottery finds hadn’t been washed and when we did that we found that some items had been scratched with the names of their owners,” said Nick.

These were Samian ware pottery - made on the Continent and higher class and more expensive than local products.

“If you were living in a military community with 500 soldiers, their slaves and civilian followers then items may get stolen,” said Nick.

“You would want to make sure your good pottery did not go walkabout.”

For much of its life, Condercum was garrisoned by Asturian cavalry from northern Spain.

Another 1937 find was a stone inscription recording that the fort’s granaries had been built by the Classis Britannica - the British navy which had its home base in what is now Dover.

Another find at the current South Shields dig is a pot decorated with a fish scale pattern which was made in the Nene Valley near Cambridge and would have been a pricey addition to a Roman dinner service.

The excavations have also revealed a big defensive ditch, almost seven metres wide, into which part of the fort walls had tumbled.

The ditch was dug in the Fifth Century after the Roman Empire had lost control of Britain and shows that some organised community was still living in or using the fort in the post-Roman Dark Ages.

It is believed that the fort site was later used by the Anglo-Saxons and may have been a royal centre.

Work is also progressing on WallQuests’s newly-discovered Roman baths site near Segedunum fort in Wallsend.

The baths’ cold room and part of its cold plunge bath and heated room have now been identified.

Nick said: “We’re anxious that people know that they have an opportunity to get involved in excavations at their local Roman fort or just to come and watch the excavations in progress.”

For information on how to be involved visit www.hadrianswallquest.co.uk

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