Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Royal Albert Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter - Part Two

The Roman Isca Dumnoniorum - Exeter
It was way back in February that I posted about a visit to the Royal Albert Museum in Exeter and that I didn't get time to see some important parts of the collection in full, namely the Roman, Iron and Bronze age and English Civil War artefacts and so I was really pleased to find some time to pick up where I had left off

February Post - Exeter Royal Albert Museum

Roman Exeter
When the Romans invaded Britain they found an island inhabited by regional Celtic tribes and those people inhabiting the modern day counties of Cornwall, Devon and the western parts of Somerset and Dorset were called the Dumnonii by the Romans, a tribe of iron age Celts.

Roman Troops landing on Anglesey - Angus McBride
The Roman II Augusta Legion led by the future Emperor Vespasian established a legionary fort on the banks of the River Exe in 55AD, where it became the principle base until the unit moved to Wales, establishing the new settlement of Isca Augusta.

Poenius Postumus - Praefectus Castorum II Augusta Legion
As the Roman invaders sought to develop their control of the areas of Britain they had occupied, their often insensitive brutality caused the locals, not for the last time, to rise up in open rebellion to the occupation.

In 61 AD Queen Boudica of the Icini in response to her own flogging and her daughters rape by Roman troops gathered together an army from the tribes of the Icini and Trinovantes and set off on a trail of destruction against Roman centres of occupation at Camelodunum (Colchester), Verulanium (St Albans) and Londinium (London).

The Roman Governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus was busy at the time organising the invasion of Anglesey and had to quickly gather his forces in response being unable to prevent the destruction of the three cities.

At the time of the rebellion the II Augusta in Exeter were under the command of Poenius Postumus who was the Praefectus Castorum the third most senior officer in the legion and thought to have been left in command as the Legate and Senior Tribune may well have left to join Paulinus' staff.

He ignored the request from Paulinus to bring his troops north to help deal with the rebellion and on learning of the defeat of Boudica at the Battle of Watling Street knew his fate was sealed and promptly fell on his sword.

The map showing the Roman road network in Britain with Isca Dumnonorium (Exeter) in the South West and  Isca Augusta (Caerleon) in South Wales, where the II Augusta Legion set up its new base of operations when it left Exeter.

Where ever you find major Roman settlements you find bath houses and the legionaries soon had their own bath house up and running, the remains of which lie close by Exeter Cathedral, with plans to develop the site into a major tourist attraction for the city.

The museum contains amazing artefacts that have come to light over the years demonstrating the evidence of Roman occupation and the early development of the city. I love seeing artefacts like these that seem to connect the modern day with times past and they are even more fascinating when they link you to your own neighbourhood.

The Sea-goat and Pegasus emblems of II Augusta found on Hadrian's Wall - possible candidates
for owning the legs in the mosaic below 
Two animal hooves (top right) prancing over a coloured disc are thought to be emblems
of the legion and comprise the earliest known mosaic in Roman Britain
The Roman Legionary baths exposed in a recent dig close to Exeter Cathedral

A piece of wall plaster from the baths with graffiti and doodles scrawled on it, one piece having the words "cave canem" or beware of the dog!
Antefix tiles that were fixed to the ends of the rafters on the bath house roof designed to protect the timber from rain and decorated in the form of the Medusa's head
Examples of painted wall plaster from the Basilica Forum, close to the bath house
Replica dolphin tile cast from those found in Caerleon that matches those found in Exeter showing they were made from the same mould carried by the army, thus linking II Augusta with the Welsh village

Personal items and grave goods provide a more intimate connection with the past and the museum houses examples of Roman soldiers cremations and items deposited with the remains many broken before placing with the burial.

Glass gaming counters and the goddess Victoria, goddess of victory, the Roman equivalent of the Greek Nike, probably disfigured from the heat of the cremation 
A beautiful glass jar from Germania, alongside broken food bowls deposited with the remains
One of the first known residents of Exeter was this Roman soldier, Lucius Julius Hipponicus, having left his name on this Samian ware cup
With the legs deliberately broken off, this pouncing panther figure was part of another soldier's grave cremation
The one thing you would expect to find in a Roman garrison city would be items of the soldiers kit and the museum has some great examples of discarded or lost pieces of military kit.

The classic Roman soldiers side arm was the pugio or dagger and this scabbard frame is immediately recognisable. The frame is iron covered with a film of silvery tin with the remains of a wooden lining covered in red leather. The reconstruction next to it shows how it would have looked as new.

Typical look of Roman cavalry illustrating some of the items seen below
Small items of kit - 15. Tent Peg, 16. Evidence of cavalry with this harness fitting made of copper coated in silver or tin, 17. Horse harness pendent, 18. Horse harness fitting, 19. Iron curb bit and chain, part of the bridle.
Infantry kit - 8. & 9. Armour buckle from the lorica segmentata (not what the Romans would have called it), 13. & 14 are the metal fittings to the soldiers groin protector or apron

Other items from Roman Exeter - 20.  Brooches used on the right shoulder to fasten a cloak, 21. Signet ring with the image of Mercury used on personal wax seals, 22. Iron ring engraved with the numeral XIV suggesting a former soldier of the 14th Legion, 23. Melon beads worn on a necklace by both men and women, 24. Stylus for use with a wax tablet and 25. A Roman key handle used on an early tumbler lock 

The Devon Celts - Dumnonii
With the recent post about the Woodbury Hill fort, I was really keen to see the collection of items relating to the Dumnonii and there are some remarkable finds on show that illustrate the fine workmanship these people were capable of.

These bronze spearheads are estimated to be c 3,500 years old, the smaller (125) is from a throwing spear or javelin and (126) has been deliberately broken or "ritually killed" to break its power
The items are amazing to see and give a great a feel for the sophistication of the people who walked the same countryside that I now enjoy.

This bronze dagger blade is estimated at 3,500 - 3,700 years old and was discovered in a cremation burial mound at Huntshaw near Torrington in Devon. The weapon is high status and would have originally had a wood or horn style handle
The Worth Hoard, c 2500 - 2700 BC, found at Worth, near Washfield at a ford on the River Exe. Two bronze spearheads a sword and bronze plate. Water played a large factor in Celtic religion and many high value artefacts have been found in or near water

Julius Caesar led the first Roman expeditions to Britain in what could possibly be described as a reconnaissance in force in 55 and 54 BC and gave the earliest Roman descriptions of the inhabitants and their customs.

Iron Age Britons
Woodbury Castle Iron Age Hill Fort

These eighty badly corroded iron bars are known as "currency bars" and were originally deposited in a reed lined pit, Julius Caesar described British tribes using iron bars as a form of currency.

Two iron spearheads discovered in Exeter, possibly used by Roman auxiliary troops

Roman Money
Money says a lot about how a society works and the value placed on people and items by it. Thus the coins and their value have a lot to tell us as well as the artwork they carry of the people and events of the times in which they were created.

Roman coins are all about power and prestige and reflect how Romans felt about their empire. They carry portraits of the "Big Men" of the time, the current Emperor and often depict events that show what a great leader that Emperor was.

The table below rates the coins in value versus one another. The Roman legionary from the time of Marius and the establishment of the professional army in about 107 BC was paid an annual salary of 225 Denarii less deductions for clothing and food. In spite of steady inflation, with large devaluation in currency, through the 2nd Century, this remained the same pay rate until Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD) raised it to 300 Denarii and later still Septimus Severus (193-211 AD) increased it to 500 Denarii.

Augustan Currency Values - Other coins value against the Aureas
(27 BC - 301 AD)
AureusQuinarius AureusDenariusQuinariusSestertiusDupondiusAsSemisQuadrans

Roman Sestertii discovered in Exeter
A very rare Roman gold Aureas, equivalent to six weeks pay for a Roman legionary. The value of these coins meant that very few were lost and this one carries the head of Vespesian, the Emperor who had lead the II Augusta Legion to Exeter in 55AD

Roman Denarius
Roman Asses
A coin hoard discovered in a former Roman military building from around 73-75 AD  during the last few years of the legionary fortress
Buried after 260 AD and discovered in Exeter in 1715 by workmen, this hoard of Roman silver coins were numbered in thousands of coins and this is what remains of the original find. The thinking is that the rest of the hoard are now in the collections of many other museums throughout England.

Anglo-Saxon Coinage
First produced by King Offa of Mercia in about 875 AD, the English silver penny remained in circulation up until the creation of the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. These were the coins used to pay off the Viking invaders with their Danegeld protection money and more of these Anglo-Saxon coins have been found in Denmark than here in England.

As I am well into a game based on the King Alfred the Great's war with the Viking invasions, I couldn't resist a picture of these very famous English coins.

The English silver penny of King Aethelred II was worth a lot, with five pennies buying a pig and twenty a cow and with smaller payments seeing the coins literally cut in half or quartered 

Exeter in the English Civil War

The final section I wanted to take some time to see was the collection covering the English Civil War in which the South West was very much involved from the start and to the end as Parliament gained the ascendancy.

There is so much archaeology in and around Exeter that as new buildings are put up to replace old structures, the history of the city is often revealed in the preparations for the new build.

I remember the building of the Exeter Southgate Hotel  in the early eighties and the revealing of the Royalist siege works against the city.

The city endured two sieges by Royalist troops between 1642-43.

Prince Maurice of the Palantine

It finally fell on the 4th September 1643 after a bombardment and assault by a large Royalist army led by Prince Maurice.

General Thomas Fairfax

The city would remain under Royalist control until retaken by Parliamentary General Fairfax on the 16th April 1646 as part of his successful campaign to take back the West Country for Parliament.

Civil Wars by there nature are often very bloody affairs and the City of Exeter and its people suffered dreadfully at the hands of both sides as property was destroyed in the fighting and revenge was taken by each occupying force.

Cavalry helmet c 1645 from the Rougemont Castle Armoury
A well protected cavalryman of the period in leather buff coat, gauntlets, cuirass and iron helmet as seen above
Small calibre cannon balls - small but deadly
Lead shot recovered from around the farm at Hayes Barton, the scene of heavy fighting on 31st July 1643 when 1100 men of the Parliamentary defenders sallied out to destroy the Royalist forces in St Thomas, losing 16 killed and 50 prisoners but taking 80 prisoners

Great illustration of infantry of the period that would have fought in Exeter
Close combat in the suburbs of Exeter required house clearing weapons like this clay pot hand grenade, perfect for lobbing into windows. When it was found it was misidentified as a hand warmer!

Proceedings about the storming of Exeter - a contemporary blow by blow account of  the storming of Exeter by the army under Fairfax

Articles of Surrender of the Royalist forces to General Fairfax's army
General George Monck - 1st Duke of Albemarle,_1st_Duke_of_Albemarle

I can remember many many years ago studying at school about the role of General Monck in restoring the monarchy to England after the English Civil War and I didn't know he was a Devon man.

General Monck was obviously very astute and a clever diplomat as well as a senior soldier, to have successfully survived the turbulent times he lived through serving for the Royalist and Parliament's forces and leading the delicate task of convincing Parliament to restore King Charles II after the death of Cromwell.

Book containing a letter describing, Devon born, General Monck's role in the restoration of King Charles II

Civil War armour and pole arms kept in the armoury at Rougemont Castle in Exeter and typical of that used by the troops of the period.

If you are in Exeter and are interested in the history of the city, the wider county and the world collections it has on show, I would highly recommend a visit to the Royal Albert Museum. In the two visits we made this year, there were also special exhibitions in the art gallery that in February featured the amazing work of restoring badly wounded soldiers from the world wars up to modern times, illustrating incredible facial reconstructions developed by surgeons, and this month featured art work illustrating the weather and meteorology over the centuries, with items covering the work of Beaufort, the Navy and the modern Met Office, based in Exeter.

Other sources consulted for this post
Exeter City Wall History Trail


  1. Fantastic tour through the museum, Jonathan. That is an interesting Celtic burial ritual in the illustration. I wonder if that was typical? Thank you!

    1. Hi Jon, thank you. Yes the illustration seemed to give a vivid impression of the look of the Celtic peoples and the burial ritual of depositing the person with grave goods was not unusual as the many items displayed in the post were found in burial mounds with cremation pots.

      I see that this picture shows a chariot or light carriage being placed with the body and I remember seeing a similar burial if on a grander scale in Cyprus with a king buried with a chariot and four horses which were killed for the occasion.

  2. Hello Jonathan,
    thank you for this interresting history essay

    1. Hi Salvatore,
      Thank you, my pleasure, glad you enjoyed the read.

  3. Replies
    1. Hi Rodger, thank you. It's great fun looking at stuff that relates to locals from the past. Pleased you enjoyed the read.

  4. Good day
    Thank you so much for that intersting post and all the images! Where did you find the one of the exercising legionaries in the amphitheatre?
    Thank you in advance - Chris

    1. Hi Chris,
      Thank you. I'm sorry I'm not sure which picture you are referring to as I have not used one depicting legionaries in the amphitheatre.

      Perhaps you could tell me the number of the picture starting from the top of the post.


    2. Hello
      Thank or the answer! I meant the 22. picture,
      That one :)
      Thank you already in Advance,
      best greetings

    3. Ah yes, I think you mean John Banbury's superb illustration of the amphitheatre in Caerleon in its 'heyday'. I believe I found that in the guide we bought at the National Roman Army Museum in the town and I believe he has done other similar work illustrating the development of the army fortress at that time.

      I am away on holiday, so don't have my books at hand to confirm that definitely

      Hope that helps

  5. Hello
    Thanks a lot, but I believe ist not made by John Banbury. It is on that side:, and here the 22. It Shows Roman soldiers doing their Training in the amphitheatre. I guess it was made by Peter Connolly.
    Have a good vacation, and thanks for the answer