Archaeology project uncovers Roman engraved gems near Hadrian’s Wall

The Uncovering Roman Carlisle project has been undertaking a community-supported excavation at the Carlisle Cricket Club, where archaeologists from Wardell Armstrong discovered a Roman bath house in 2017.

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The Roman baths in Bath, where ‘curse tablets’ have been found. © Wikimedia Commons

The bath house lies in the Carlisle area of Stanwix, near the Roman fort of Uxelodunum (meaning “high fort”), also known as Petriana. Uxelodunum was built to dominate the lands west of modern-day Carlisle, as well as the vital crossing at the River Eden.

It was located behind the Hadrianic barrier, with the Wall forming its northern defenses and its long axis parallel to the Wall. The fort was garrisoned by the Ala Petriana, a 1,000-strong cavalry unit, whose members were all granted Roman citizenship for valor on the field.

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Hadrian’s Wall. © quisnovus/flickr

Previous excavations of the bathhouse have revealed several rooms, a hypocaust system, terracotta water pipes, intact floors, painted tiles, and fragments of cooking pots. The bath house was used by the soldiers for recreation and bathing, where several high-ranked soldiers or Roman elite lost the engraved gems while bathing in its heated waters, which were then flushed into the drains when the pools were cleaned.

The engraved gems are known as intaglios and date from the late 2nd century or 3rd century AD, which includes an amethyst depicting Venus holding a flower or a mirror, and a red-brown jasper featuring a satyr.

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7 of the semi-precious stones discovered by archaeologists near Hadrian’s Wall. © Anna Giecco

Speaking to the Guardian, Frank Giecco from Wardell Armstrong said: “You don’t find such gems on low-status Roman sites. So, they’re not something that would have been worn by the poor. Some of the intaglios are minuscule, around 5mm; 16mm is the largest intaglio. The craftsmanship to engrave such tiny things is incredible.”

Excavations also uncovered more than 40 women’s hairpins, 35 glass beads, a clay Venus figure, animal bones, and imperial-stamped tiles, indicating that the bathhouse was a massive structure used not only by the garrison of Uxelodunum but also by the Roman elite living near the fort and the fort of Luguvalium, which is now located beneath Carlisle Castle.