Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Armor Hoard Volume 54 Number 4, July/August 2001
by Chris Hellier

The most important pieces of Roman armor to be discovered in Britain in almost 40 years were recently unearthed at Carlisle, site of the ancient Roman outpost of Luguvallium at the western end of Hadrian's Wall. The hoard includes a scale shoulder guard which, says Thom Richardson, Keeper of Oriental and European Armour at the Royal Armouries, may be "a crucial piece for understanding how the shoulder seam of a scale cuirass (body armor) was constructed. Numerous fragments of scale armor of this type have been recovered, but scholars have puzzled over the construction of the complete garments."

The shoulder guard is made of dozens of iron scales held together with bronze wire and closely resembles armor depicted on a sculpture of a legionary from Alba Lulia, the site of the second-century Roman colony Apulum, in central Romania. The sculpture shows a combination of plate and scale armor, with laminated arm guards similar to other pieces found in Carlisle. Plate armor was usually joined by internal strips of leather, while scale armor was pierced with pairs of holes and secured with twists of wire.

The latest hoard was discovered on the floor of a building, probably a second-century armorer's workshop, on the north side of Luguvallium's main east-west road. Richardson hopes the waterlogged site has preserved the internal leather of the limb defenses and the armor linings, thus providing detailed evidence about the articulation of iron plates. Leather fittings "very rarely survive on excavated pieces of armor of any period," he says.

Tentative dating of the armor suggests it is probably from the A.D. 120s-130s. In June 122, Emperor Hadrian, accompanied by heavy cavalry and members of the elite Praetorian Guard, visited Britain as part of a tour of the northern frontiers. While there he ordered the construction of the wall, the limit of Roman civil jurisdiction, to protect Roman Britain from the Picts of Scotland.

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America