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Centurions Corner

New Years Honours List

Just a note to say how proud I am to have received from the Queen the appointment of a Member of the British Empire (MBE) in the News Years Honours List, for services to Roman History.

I feel the award reflects the standing and recognition the Guard has achieved over the last 38 years and the work of the members, both new and old, past and present. As with Centurions in the Roman Army, I feel I am accepting this honour on behalf of the group.

Chris Haines MBE


STANDARDS IN ROMAN RE-ENACTMENT

By Chris Haines


Some years ago I had the audacity to write that some armour and equipment I had seen at a Roman re- enactment was badly researched. The reaction this caused made me reluctant to put further thoughts of this kind on paper. However the recent proliferation of small, poorly equipped Roman groups throughout Britain, Europe and elsewhere has made me feel, after 30 years in re-enactment, that it is time to speak out again.

I would say first of all that The Guard does not think that it has got everything right. We have equipment in use which was made many years ago, which we now know to be incorrect and which we intend to replace. What I am referring to is armour and equipment being made now and in the last few years, which is wrongly and poorly researched.

Helmets

Many Roman re-enactors' helmets are hybrids with a mixture of details taken from several types of helmet. The finished result is helmets with "eyebrows" matched to the wrong occiputs and cheek pieces and the shape of many helmets does not match that of the original from which they have been copied. One method favoured by re-enactors of producing helmet bowls is to have them spun. However very few Roman helmets were spun and the few that were are made of brass or bronze. No Roman helmet of iron/steel has ever been found which was made this way. The problem with spinning is that the end result is, of course, round and as the human head is oval this makes for a poorly fitting helmet.If anything is wrong with Guard helmets it is that they are too good. Roman helmets were quite poorly finished and in most cases were asymmetrical. Our helmets are certainly not made from stainless steel, as has been suggested. The last few years has seen a number of poorly reconstructed helmets become available by internet and mail order. It is sad to see English Heritage and museum shops selling these to the public when I feel that they have an obligation to stock items they know to be correct.

Body Armour

Body armour is one area which re-enactors, on the whole, get right. However all of us, for practical reasons, make lorica segmentata in thicker metal than the Romans. It should never, of course, be made in stainless steel. When making mail most of us compromise and use butted rings. Riveted ring mail construction is a mind destroying process. Dagging on mail is now thought to be seen only on sculpture and not on Roman soldiers.

The recent finds at Carlisle (see below) produced a piece of scale armour made in the same way as that at Newstead, with the scales being linked with wire before being attached to a linen jerkin by leather thongs. Brass scales show signs of being tinned. Muscle cuirasses, it seems, were reserved for officers of very high rank and not used by centurions whostuck to mail and scale. There is no evidence to suggest centurions ever wore lorica segmentata and never a mixture of muscle cuirass with segmentata shoulders.

Swords, Daggers and Belts

Perhaps the areas where most inaccuracies occur in Roman re-enactment are with swords, daggers and belts, many of which bear little resemblance to anything found or seen in sculpture. A prime example is the reconstructions of the scabbard pieces from Long Windsor that were in the Ashmolean Museum. Reconstructors have faithfully copied an interpretation from an Osprey book which, on examination of the original pieces, is clearly incorrect. Side guttering on Pompeii scabbards should not cover the total length of the sides but stop at the lower set of rings. It is sad to see various museums selling some awful swords and daggers cast in white metal, some of which are being worn by re-enactors. What were once thought to be baldric fastenings have long ago been shown to be fittings from cavalry harness - and yet they still persist in Roman re-enactment. All Roman belt plates show signs of having been tinned or silvered.

The Pilum

It seems that everyone, including The Guard, will have to change their idea of the pilum. Recent work by Peter Connolly has led him to think that the Oberaden type pilum went out of use early in the first century AD, to be replaced by a much thicker weapon, designed for penetration, not to bend on impact.


Standards of Roman Re-enactment


Tunics

Much has been written in the last six years about the colour and shape of tunics. Graham Sumner has, overthe last eighteen months, spent many hours collectingall the evidence he can find. This is soon to be published in two Osprey books. His conclusion isthat the Roman army used both red and white tunics.White seems to appear in peaceful roles and red in battle conditions. Blue tunics seem to be associated with marines and the sea. Tunics would be made of wool which was the material that could be produced in sufficient quantities in the Roman world, both for the militaryand civilians. Linen was, of course, produced but the process is much more laborious and time consuming.


Archers

When it comes to archers, most re-enactors seem either not to have read or taken notice of John Coulston's article in BAR S275 (1985) where he argues that what is thought to be a typical Roman archer in flowing robes and pointed helmet, is unlikely. Archers would have looked like any other auxiliaries except, of course, for the fact that they carried a bow. It should also be remembered that Vegetius states that all Roman soldiers were trained in the use of the bow.

The Cavalry

Mark Hassell has recently called Peter Connolly's reconstruction of the Roman cavalry saddle "Perhaps the greatest piece of archaeological reconstruction ever done." We have used these saddles since 1993 and our riders have confirmed how effective they are. In spite of this some still persist with the argument that a soft pad was used with "floppy" horns. The wealth of cavalry equipment in museums was brought together by Mike Bishop in B.A.R. S394(1988) but this seems to be ignored by those making Roman harness. However we must not overlook the invaluable work undertaken by Marcus Junklemann on cavalry parade armour.

Contubernium Tents

One area where I am particularly disappointed concerns contubemium tents. No one but The Guard seems to be prepared to attempt to hand stitch a leather tent. Although I would agree a machine-stitched tent is much preferable to the canvas tents which many groups have purchased. It would not be so bad if these canvas tents had notices on them telling the public they should be made of leather.

Suggestions that canvas awnings have been found at Vindolanda are totally incorrect.


Roman leather expert, Carol van Driel-Murray also says that the leather used should be nothing other than goatskin. The two goat skin tents we have made took over 750 hours each to stitch. On the second tent we have an opening at the front and back as an experiment. Carol did not agree with this and after using the tent for the past three seasons I would agree that a rear opening is not correct. With the first tent the ridge and eaves poles are jointed in the centre. At first centre poles supported these joints but experience found these to be unnecessary. On the second tent the poles have no joints and are in one length. Experience has shown that this makes them impractical to transport, particularly if they were to be lashed to the contubernium mule.

Guy ropes at the ridge have been found to be unnecessary although two guy ropes, rather than one, at each comer make the tent stand better and keeps the goatskin taut. The first tent having been used for ten seasons has shrunk over time and the ridge and eaves poles have been shortened by about 4 inches.

Conclusion

I sincerely hope that the future will bring much more accurate research by re-enactors before they produce Roman equipment - military, civilian and gladiatorial - rather than follow modem artistic impressions or what they have seen in films like "Gladiator".


THE CARLISLE FINDS

Many readers will have heard of the find near the Tullie House Museum, Carlisle in 2001, of a large amount of military equipment, including a large piece of scale armour and several arm guards (vambraces) from what is thought to be an armourer's workshop. Details of the find were launched with much fanfare to the media by the Royal Armouries, Leeds.

At first it was thought that Carlisle City Council would fund the conservation and cataloguing of the artefacts and display them at Tullie House. However the council appears to have had a change of heart when they found out how much it would cost. The situation was also made more complicated when Carlisle Archaeology Unit, who had excavated the finds, went into liquidation. What is the latest? Needless to say the finds need conservation as soon as possible. The Oxford Archaeology Unit has been given the task of cataloguing the finds and having them conserved at various laboratories throughout the country. There is too much for one laboratory to cope with.