Category Archives: Exhibtions and workshops

An impressive exhibit of decorated Roman tombstones in Chester’s Grosvenor Museum

Introduction

Chester’s role as an important Roman military headquarters surrounded by a growing settlement, known as Deva, is very well understood, but there is not a great deal to see on the ground.  This means that Chester’s Roman legacy is largely preserved in excavated archaeological remains, some of which are on display in local museum spaces.  There is a small gallery of Roman objects in the Grosvenor Museum in Chester showing a wide variety of artefact types, from elite pottery to drainage pipes, but to display some of the large number of Chester tombstones, a special exhibition space was was created for them in a dedicated room in the museum, showing them off to great effect.

The display opens with a Roman style couch under a canopy, setting the scene for a walk down a path between the tombstones, emulating one of the Roman roads heading out of Deva.  The walls behind the tombstones capture the sense of the surrounding landscape, part military installation, part civilian settlement, and part rural vistas.  The tombstones are organized either side of the “road,” each one facing out towards the visitor.  Low level information boards, great for wheelchair users and children, show useful illustrations of key examples, together with translations of the texts.

In the discussion of tombstones below, each example is accompanied by an RIB (Roman Inscriptions of Britain) number.  Each inscription in Britain has been given a unique number.  When I was at university studying the Antonine Wall, the Roman Inscriptions In Britain were recorded in print, but this was obviously the sort of content that was best suited to a database, and one of the best online resources for Roman Britain is Roman Inscriptions in Britain online.  As a resource it has been developed and expanded, and the user interface is excellent.  If you want to know more about any of the tomb stones mentioned below, this is a great place to start, with translations, illustrations and further references all available.

Burials and memorials

Altar RIB 3149, found at the Chester amphitheatre

The Romans disposed of their dead in a variety of ways that included both inhumation (deposition in the ground) and cremation.  Wealthier Roman inhumation burials in Britain were traditionally accompanied by this sort of memorial, and might include tomb stones and commemorative slabs.  In terms of how they were used, tombstones are much like the grave stones and chest-like tombs found in Christian churchyard cemeteries today, but dedicated to different deities and with far more elaborate scenes depicting the owners of the graves engaged in activities that showed them in activities that they enjoyed, or which highlighted particular qualities.

Collectively, these memorials are a useful source of information about Roman life and death in Britain, but individual memorials also have the potential to tell their own stories about the owners, the way in which the owners wanted to be remembered and the ideas with which they wanted to be associated.  Although the Grosvenor Museum’s display primarily features tombstones, there are some altars too.  Altars could be found in similar contexts, but might also be found in homes, public buildings and at religious sites.  The above example from the museum’s exhibit, RIB 3149, was found in a room behind the amphitheatre arena’s wall during excavations in 1966, and reads, in translation, “To the goddess Nemesis, (from) Sextius Marcianus, centurion, in consequence of a vision.”

Roman cemeteries

Roman Chester with modern roads superimposed (click to enlarge). Source: British History Online

The area around the fortress was under military control and the location of the cemeteries was decided by the Praefectus castorum (camp prefect), who decided where civilian quarters and various facilities were to be located.  Roman law was very strict on the matter of refusing burial with in urban and residential areas.  Roman cemeteries were built outside towns and cities, and depending on the size of the urban centre there might be a number of them.  The earliest tombstones and altars were erected along the sides of roads, but more formal cemeteries would have been established over time.   These will have been destroyed as Chester spread out in all directions during subsequent centuries.  Most of the stones in the museum, sculpted or inscribed, or both, had therefore originally come from one or more Roman cemeteries, and were probably dumped somewhere together to make space for urban spread.

Plan of part of the Infirmary Field excavation. Source: Chester ShoutWiki

One cemetery was revealed during rescue excavations carried out between 1912 and 1917 by Professor Robert Newstead.  It was located at Infirmary Field to the west of the fortress, the site of a planned new wing for Chester Royal Infirmary.  The presence of a possible cemetery  had been known since the mid 19th century due to the discovery of burials adjacent to the Infirmary in 1858 and 1863.  During his excavations Newstead found that the cemetery contained men, women and children who, judging from the objects in graves, were both military and civilian.   

The tombstones in the walls

Section of the Chester City walls thought to be Roman, sitting on bedrock above the canal.

The high sandstone walls that surround the city of Chester were originally established in the Roman period, but were built upon in subsequent periods to repair damage and to raise the overall height of the walls.   There are only a few places where Roman phases can be clearly identified with confidence, such as that shown on the right.  The repair of the walls over time incorporated both newly quarried stone, and whatever stone was lying around from earlier collapses.

Although tombstones and altars are known from various locations around Chester, most of the Chester tomb stones in the Grosvenor display are from a cache found incorporated into the Chester city walls, completely divorced from their original funerary context, but would once have come from one or more cemeteries. The re-use of ancient building materials is common the world over.  In ancient Egypt, the Pharaoh Horemheb re-used painted blocks from palace buildings of the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten as rubble fill to create the thick walls of his monumental gateway at the temple of Karnak on the Nile.   In both the Chester and Karnak cases, these items used as building materials have enormous historical value to us today as information about the past, but were simply unwanted rubbish when they were employed as building materials.

Plate A from Cox’s publication of his excavations in 1891

In 1883 the Chester City Surveyor Mr Matthew Jones was overseeing repairs to a section of the lower courses of stonework in the walls and the fill behind them near to Morgan’s Mount.  As they prepared the site for the work he realized that he was looking at pieces of Roman stonework and that one was clearly part of a tomb stone, and he retrieved what he could see.  Although no further investigations were carried out in1883, further repair work was required in 1887 between Northgate and the King Charles Tower, this time rather more extensive, and more Roman funerary pieces were found.  Again, they had been used to repair the lower courses of the wall.  So many were found this time that it was decided to extend the work and locate more of Chester’s Roman heritage.  The Chester Archaeological Society, founded in 1849 (and still going strong today), was brought in to supervise the investigation of the wall to the west of the Northgate between 1890 and 1892.  Taking all the finds from 1883, 1887 and the 1890-92 excavations, more than 150 stones were found, of which the Grosvenor exhibit is a tiny sample showing some of the best of the examples.

Key features of tombstones

Tombstone of Flavius Callimorphus and Serapion. RIB 558

The earliest tombstones and altars known from Chester date to the 1st century.  For example, the tombstone of Flavius Callimorphus showing him with his son or nephew Serapion (aged 42 and 3 ½ years old respectively) was discovered at the Roodee in 1874, in situ over a grave, and was erected by Flavius’s brother Thesaeus (RIB 558).  These are Greek names which may indicate that they were freedman and/or traders who had settled in Chester.  Flavius is shown reclining on a funeral couch, and the elaborate nature of the decoration indicates that this was a wealthy family.  Within the grave were two skeletons accompanied by a gold ring and a coin of the emperor Domition, dating to the latter half of the 1st Century A.D.  Callimorphus and Serapion, the former lying on a couch with the latter in his arms, shown in the photograph to the left.  On a small table in the foreground is a bird, which is a metaphor for the journey into the afterlife.  Next to the table is an amphora that may or may not suggest that Callimorphus was an importer of wine.  Although it is speculation that he was a wine importer, the family names indicate that they were of eastern Mediterranean origin, where Greek was preferred to Latin, and could well have been traders who settled locally.  The name Serapion is of particular interest, as it refers to the god Serapis, who was venerated during the Ptolemaic (Greek) and subsequent Roman occupation of ancient Egypt.

Altar from Watergate Street. RIB 445. Source: British Museum BM 1836,0805.1.

Amongst other Roman finds, a 2nd Century A.D. stone altar was found in lower Watergate Street when Georgian terraces were built in 1778.  It was dedicated to Fortuna Redux (Fortune, who brings travellers home safely, including soldiers and traders) and gods of healing and health Aesculapius and Salus.  It was raised by freedmen and slaves of a Roman imperial legate, perhaps a provincial governor, who has the longest recorded name in Roman Britain:  Titus Pomponius Mamilianus Rufus Antistianus Funisulanus Vettonianus.  This is the only example shown here not on display in the Grosvenor Museum. It is now in the British Museum (BM 1836,0805.1; RIB 445)

Nearly all the memorials on display in the Grosvenor are made of red sandstone.  The quality of the stone chosen was important, both for engraving scenes and text, and for durability.  The raw material selected was not the most locally available sandstone, but according to Wilding was sourced some 8 miles away where better quality red sandstone was available.

The tombstone of Caecilius Avitus, RIB 492. On the left is the original as it was found. On the right is the replica with its bright paint, both on display in the museum.

The stones would originally have been brightly painted, which is a strange thought.  A cemetery would have been a colourful place, new memorials brighter than older ones, creating a dazzling visual spectacle.  At the entrance to the Grosvenor Museum exhibit there is a facsimile of one of the Chester grave stones showing how it might have looked in full colour, and when compared with the original unpainted version that is also on display, it is a completely different entity.  It shows an optio (junior officer who was an accountant-adminstrator, second in command to a centurion) called Caecilius Avitus, wearing a cloak, a staff of office, a legionary sword and  a writing tablet (RIB 492).  It is like seeing the Lady Chapel in Chester Cathedral, painted to show how it would have looked in the Medieval period, or the glorious 17th century decoration of Rug Chapel at Corwen, near Llangollen, both of which are similar eye-openers, revising how we look at past objects and architecture.  To modern eyes, so accustomed to seeing the past in subtle monochrome, the bright paintwork of Caecilius’s tombstone is almost shocking, but Roman life was anything but dull, either at work or at play, and the colours of the stones reflected this multi-hued existence.

Between the moment of death and the burial itself there were ceremonies, rituals and processions that marked the transition from this world to the next.  For the very rich, this could be ostentatious and elaborate, involving music and theatrical performances, but for the poor it was a much more mundane affair.  Often a Roman might provide for their funeral in his or her will, but if not the responsibility fell to the person who inherited the rest of the property of the deceased.  When the deceased was buried, graves could be visited by the living, and at the end of February during the Feralia festival offerings were made to dead ancestors at their graves.

Tombstone of Curatia Dinysia. RIB 562, described below

Popular themes on the Chester tombstones are dedications to certain deities, symbolism surrounding the afterlife and depictions of the deceased lying along a banqueting couch.  Reclining on a couch was a popular eating position used by wealthy Romans, and the couch represents a banquet in the afterlife, indicating eternal wellbeing.  Some objects in scenes may hint at the profession of the deceased.  Where an inscription is included, in Latin, the names can give an indication of the origins of the individual.

Text on tombstones is always highly abbreviated, which would not have been a problem for literate contemporaries (or for researchers today) because the abbreviations were standardized and the texts were highly formulaic.  Many of the inscriptions begin DM, standing for Dis Manibus (To the spirits of the departed), and finish HFC, standing for Heres Faciendum Curavit (the heir had the stone made). The heir often adds his or her name and relationship to the deceased.  Between these topping and tailing devices there may be additional information about who died including, for example, the name of the deceased, the age at which they died, who erected the stone in their honour, the place from which the person originated, the role that the person performed, a legion or auxiliary unit in which a soldier served and the number of years for which he served.

The Grosvenor Museum tombstones

Showing some of these features is a woman reclining on a couch, framed within two columns and an arch. She is shown in the photograph immediately above.  Her name is Curatia Dinysia (perhaps a mason’s error for the name Dionysia), holding a drinking cup, with a three-legged table in the foreground (RIB 562).  Sadly the head and face are damaged. She sits between two garlands or swags of ivy leaves, sacred to the deity Bacchus, each of which supports a dove, signifying the release of the soul.  Above this scene, incorporated into the architecture of the arch, are two tritons (half men, half fish, like male mermaids, but sometimes shown with horse forelegs) blowing trumpets, representing the journey to the Isles of the Blessed where Bacchus resided.  The drinking cup, probably filled with wine, may also reference Bacchus.  As with Calimporphus and Serapion, the name Dionysia is  thought to be Greek.   The inscription reads, in translation, “To the spirits of the departed, Curatia Dinysia lived 40 years; her heir had this erected.”

The illustration on the right is by Dai Owen (Grosvenor Museum 2010)

Another woman is shown on a very worn tombstone, also cleverly recreated by illustrator Dai Owen (RIB 568).  The woman’s name is damaged, but ends “-mina”  She reclines on the banqueting couch with the familiar three-legged table in the foreground, a drinking cup in hand and a ring on the little finger of her left hand.  Most remarkably, behind her, on the the high-backed couch, is a giant sea shell flanked by dolphins, again a reference to her journey to the Isles of the Blessed.  Only part of the inscription has survived, with the DM of Dis Manibus (to the spirits of the departed) legend just beneath the three-legged table, and the end of the lady’s name just below that at far right.

Tombstones featuring women are usually found in this sort of military context, where many were wives, (more rarely mothers or daughters) of soldiers, and could communicate their own status alongside their husband’s, making statements about their own identity.  It is good to have these as they are a distinct minority. Allason-Jones, for example, estimates that inscriptions dedicated to women make up only around 10% of the total inscriptions found in Roman Britain.  These represent only the middle and upper echelons of those living in Roman areas.  As with low status men, those women who could not afford any form of memorial have been lost.

The auxiliary cavalryman (equitis) Aurelius Lucius, who has a Latin name, but was probably not of pure Roman origins is an interesting case (RIB 552).  Aurelius is shown with a moustache, beard and big hair.  Again, he is reclining on a couch, and like Curatia Dionysia, he holds a drinking cup in one hand, whilst in the other he holds a scroll of paper that represents his will.  Behind his legs are his plumed helmet and the top of his sword, and in the foreground is a small three-legged table and a boy holding a detached head.  Auxiliaries were often recruited from conquered lands and were not Roman citizens.  After 25 years in service they could apply for Roman citizenship. The uncharacteristic hair and the severed head, perhaps a war trophy, may refer to a background from one of these conquered regions, but Aurelius also chose to depict himself in a traditional Roman pose, with a traditional Latin inscription.  Perhaps he had become a citizen, incorporating his career as a foreign cavalryman but opting for a Roman afterlife.

One of the most remarkable of the Grosvenor’s tombstones is this rider on a horse carrying a flying standard.  It is thought to represent a a Sarmatian from an area now occupied by southern Ukraine and northern Romania.  The Sarmatians were nomadic hunters and pastoralists, excellent horse breeders and riders and formidable warriors.  No inscription survives, but he was almost certainly an auxiliary, as the Sarmatians were conquered in AD 175, and some are known to have been present in Britain.  Although none are known from Chester, there were Sarmatians in a regiment deployed at Ribchester in Lancashire, and it is not unlikely that a detachment of that regiment was present in Chester when this individual died.  The tall helmet is distinctive, and he holds a standard which he holds in both hands.  If he was indeed Sarmatian, this would have been topped with a fearsome dragon’s head with brightly coloured fabric flying to its rear.  When wind ran through the dragon’s jaws at speed, it made a terrifying noise to put fear into the hearts of the enemy.  His sword is in its scabbard at his side.

Another cavalryman is depicted on a scene that has lost its inscription, other than the letters DM (Dis Manibus) (RIB 550).  It is very worn, and the top of the head and the hand (and whatever it is holding) are missing but the scene is full of energy.  The horse, with its bridle and a blanket serving as a saddle clearly visible, is galloping with its mane blown back, and the rider’s legs hold tightly to its flanks.  The rider’s right arm is raised above his head, probably holding a spear, whilst his left hand, hidden from view, holds the rein or the bridle.  Trodden beneath the hooves of the horse is a naked victim who lies gripping a six-sided shield that has demonstrably failed to protect him.

Marcus Aurelius Nepos and his wife. RIB 491

A rather more domestic scene is provided by Marcus Aurelius Nepos and his wife.  The stone is right at the rear of the exhibit, and the inscription is difficult to see (it was not particularly clearly engraved in the first place) and is confined to the left, beneath the figure of Marcus Aurelius, centurion of the XXth Legion Valera Victrix, who died aged 50 years old.  There is a space beneath the figure of his wife for an inscription, but for reasons unknown this was never added.  As it was she who commissioned the stone, she was clearly still alive when the carving was made and may have left the space for an inscription of her own when she herself died, but perhaps she died elsewhere.  Marcus Aurelius is bearded, carrying a staff and has a prominent belt, a cloak over his shoulders with a small brooch attached.  His wife is holding a cup, and lefts the hem of her dress with one hand to reveal the skirt beneath.  Not visible in the photograph is an engraving on the side that shows a mason’s hammer and set square and the words SVB ASCIA D[edicatum], meaning “dedicated under the axe,” perhaps a formula to deter vandals. The tombstone dates to the 3rd century AD.

RIB 560. Tombstone of the child slaves Atilianus, Antiatilianus and Protus

The tombstones with elaborate or contained scenes are plentiful, but are still a minority in the context of British funerary memorials, representing only the most wealthy purchasers. Some tombstones merely showed a little decorative work to accompany the text.  This example (RIB 560), although still very fine, was provided with ornamental features but no elaborate scene.  It was dedicated by a master to three young slaves.  It reads, in translation, “To the spirits of the departed, Atilianus and Antiatilianus, 10 years old; and Protus, 12 years old.  Pompeius Optatus their master had this made.”  It is possible that the 10 year olds were twins. Although the thought of slavery always sits uncomfortably in today’s world, it should not be forgotten that in a period when slavery was the norm, it was by no means uncommon for masters and slaves to develop relationships of mutual affection and respect.  Perhaps that is what we are seeing here.

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Final Comments

Architectural detail showing a male gorgon, with four snakes emanating from each side of his head.

The tombstones described above represent only the majority of the total number of engraved stones preserved from Chester.  Of those that were not tombstones, some were pieces of altars and others were fragments of bigger pieces of architecture, many of which also came out the 19th century excavations in the Chester walls, some showing Roman deities.  They are out of the scope of this post but, do watch out for those too in the display if you visit the museum.

The tombstones are particularly evocative and hopefully the small sample provided here gives an idea of what sort of themes were common, and how people like to have themselves depicted.  Death in the Roman empire was an integral part of a soldier’s life, and in the military life of Chester, death had its own role and its own places, with its own objects and iconography.  Most of the individuals represented here were of relatively high status, except for the slaves of their master Pompeius Optatus, but they came from a variety of backgrounds, all either stationed here or drawn here for commercial reasons by the military stronghold, and it is good to be able to see some of the variety that made up Deva society.

19th century illustrations from Chester Archaeological Society reports of the tombstones and other engraved stones excavated from the walls (click image to enlarge). Sources, left to right: de Gray Birch 1887, Watkin 1887, de Gray Birch 1888, Jones 1887, all in the Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society volume 2 (references below).

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For those who are interested in seeing something of Rome under foot in Chester, to supplement what can be found in museums, there are a number of guided tours available (some lead by Roman Centurions!).  If you prefer a self-guided tour, the Royal Geographic Society’s “Discovering Britain” website provides one, which can be downloaded as a a PDF or as an app for your mobile device: https://www.discoveringbritain.org/activities/north-west-england/trails/chester-trail.html.


Sources:

Those that were of particular use for this post are shown in bold

Books and papers

Allason-Jones, L. 2012.  Chapter 34, Women in Roman Britain. In (eds.) James, S.L. and Dillon, S. A Companion to Women in the Ancient World. Wiley

Bell, C.E. 2020. Investigating the Autonomy of Power: Epigraphy of Women in Roman Britain. Dissertation Submitted for the Master’s Degree in Archaeology, University of Liverpool
https://www.academia.edu/44879704/Investigating_the_Autonomy_of_Power_Epigraphy_of_Women_in_Roman_Britain

Brock, E. P Loftus. 1888) The age of the walls of Chester, with references to recent discussions; The discussion on the above paper; Mr Brock’s reply to the various speakers. Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society 2. Vol 2, p. 40-97.
https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-2910-1/dissemination/pdf/JCAS_ns_002/JCAS_ns_002_040-097.pdf

Cox, E.W. 1891. Notes on the sculptures of the Roman monuments recently found in Chester. The Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, vols.43044, 1891-92, p.91-102

Eckardt, H. 2014. Objects and Identities. Roman Britain and the North-Western Provinces.  Oxford University Press

de Gray Birch, W. 1888. Notes on a sculptured stone recently found in the North Wall of the city of Chester. Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society 2. Vol 2, p. 25-39.
https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-2910-1/dissemination/pdf/JCAS_ns_002/JCAS_ns_002_025-039.pdf

de Grey Birch, W. 1888. The inscribed Roman stones recently found at Chester, during the second series of repairs to the North Wall.  Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society, vol.2, p. 98-131.
https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-2910-1/dissemination/pdf/JCAS_ns_002/JCAS_ns_002_098-131.pdf

Grosvenor Museum 2010. A Guide to Roman Stones at the Grosvenor Museum Chester. Illustrations by Dai Owen.

Henig, M. 2002.  Tales from the Tomb. In (ed.) Carrington, P.  Deva Victrix; Roman Chester Re-Assessed  papers from a weekend conference held at Chester College 3-5 September 1999.  Chester Archaeology
https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-2910-1/dissemination/pdf/CAS_DevaVictrix/CAS_DevaVictrix_075-078.pdf

Jones, I. Matthews. 1888. Official report on the discoveries of Roman remains at Chester, during the first repairs to the North Wall, in 1887. Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society 2. Vol 2, p. 1-10.
https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-2910-1/dissemination/pdf/JCAS_ns_002/JCAS_ns_002_001-010.pdf

Mason, D.J.P. 2007 (2nd edition). Roman Chester. City of the Eagles. Tempus

Thompson Watkin, W. T. 1888. The Roman inscriptions discovered at Chester, during the first repairs to the North Wall, in 1887. Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society 2. Vol 2, p.11-24.
https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-2910-1/dissemination/pdf/JCAS_ns_002/JCAS_ns_002_011-024.pdf

Wilding, R. 2006. Graham Webster Gallery of Roman Stones at the Grosvenor Museum, Chester: Explore the Hidden Mysteries of the ‘lost’ Roman Gravestones.


Websites

Roman Inscriptions of Britain (RIB)
https://romaninscriptionsofbritain.org/

Chester Archaeological Society
Professor Robert Newstead F. R. S. Lecture given to Chester Archaeological Society, 5th December 2009.  By Elizabeth Royles, Keeper of Early History, Grosvenor Museum
http://chesterarchaeolsoc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/LRoyles-NewsteadLecture_05-12-09.pdf

Roman Baths
You can decode tombstones at the Roman Baths, Bath
https://www.romanbaths.co.uk/sites/roman_baths/files/heritage/SECONDARY%20SCHOOL%20Decoding%20Roman%20tombstone%20leaflet_0.pdf

Encylopedia Britannica
“Sarmatian.” The Editors of Encyclopaedia, 29 Mar. 2018. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sarmatian

Exhibition: “Tales from Terracottapolis” at Tŷ Pawb gallery, Wrexham

Tŷ Pawb, meaning “Everyone’s House,” is a small but well thought out community and arts hub in the heart of Wrexham.  I had never been to Tŷ Pawb before, simply because I didn’t know of its existence.  Although I have been permanently installed in Churton for over a year now, I am still finding my way around.  The photographs below are my own unless otherwise stated in the caption.

Ty Pawb in Wrexham. Source: Wrexham Leader

For those who have never encountered Tŷ Pawb, it was formerly a covered market with a car park on top.  Apparently the market was hanging on to life by a thread before it was closed and as usual with this sort of change, the plans unsurprisingly met with some resistance. Often, the words “arts” and “community” when put together in the same sentence are enough to set any number of warning bells ringing, but in this particular case, there has been a strong dose of common sense and a real feel for the town thrown into the mix. The car park and the open space occupied by the market are still there, but the exterior and the former market space have been given a very smart and modern facelift.  Small retail units and a food hall and modern benches and chairs making it an an excellent place to meet and grab a bite.  It is an impressive initiative, and looking at it today, it seems to be working very well.

Source: Ty Pawb

The  gallery fits in very nicely into this arrangement.  The market space with its creatively designed modern signage and bright frontages and furnishings give the whole place a contemporary edge, which segues nicely with the inclusion of the gallery, which is so well blended into the space that at first we couldn’t see it.

We were there to see Tales from Terracottapolis.  It is on until 4th June (open Monday to Saturday, 10-4, free of charge), and I recommend it wholeheartedly.  It is a small exhibit, a single gallery, but makes brilliant use of the space with its excellent light.  Using objects from the Wrexham Museum and elsewhere, together with art works from a number of local artists, it combines 19th Century with 21st Century ideas to explore the local production of architectural flourishes and glazed tiles that formed the character of an older, more confident and prosperous Wrexham.  Some of the decorative twiddles, like capitals, finials and long decorative panels, could be ordered from catalogues, but others were custom made.

There is an excellent video that provides the background to the industry, and explains how the terracotta was made, from kneading the clay by hand via being formed into moulds before firing, a highly skilled process from beginning to end.  It would have been really great to be able to re-see the video online.
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The front part of the gallery, where you walk in, is dominated by the modern pieces, many of which are very striking and engaging, and which aim to complement the story of Wrexham’s brick, tile and terracotta industry by offering new responses to it.

The first thing that draws the eye is The Brick Man by Antony Gormley, best known for his Angel of the North. It is (or would have been) one of his most tactile pieces, and a true celebration of brick.  This is a scale model of a piece that was originally planned as a 120ft (36.5m) monument in the run down Holbrook area of Leeds, near the Leeds City Station.  There was some public outcry against it, which is such a shame, as it resulted in the planning application being rejected by city planners.  As well as the scale model, itself a solidly impressive celebration of brickwork, there is an archive of documentation following the sources of the statue, from the original proposal to the official rejection of the the proposal.

There is a fascinating letter from the Partnership Manager of the British Railways Board, who supported the idea of the project, to a disgruntled objector, which really hits the nail on the head for me.  You can click on the image to see a legible version.  I am often amongst the first to grumble about inappropriate and poorly thought out modern sculpture installed in urban or rural locations as some form of random art statement, because such initiatives can actually alienate people from art and frequently undermine the impact of the heritage in which they are being installed.  By contrast, The Brick Man actually had real merit (originally, I typed “legs”), not only as an art work, but as a way of contributing to urban regeneration, both by drawing attention to the monument and the area, and by attracting visitors.  It is also a good piece of art, which is important.  I was previously unaware of The Brick Man, and it was a really good opportunity to see the scale model and some of Gormley’s original plans.

Display of pottery sherds by Paul Eastwood

Immediately on the right as you walk in to the gallery is a section of wall covered by rows of ceramic sherds that the artist, Paul Eastwood, had collected from riverside locations during lockdown.  It was so familiar, looking eerily like some of the stuff I have been collecting from my garden, and posing exactly the same sort of questions.  Eastwood, based in Wales, specializes in capturing how memory is created through objects and language and, in this case, what abandoned sherds tell us about the people who discarded them and the places they were found.  There were other pieces of his work on the same wall.

A set of large stand-alone pieces in the main space of the gallery, hanging panels and tall curving sections, captured the images of walls and arches, surface-traced like brass-rubbings from the derelict walls of buildings that had produced the bricks, moulded works and tiles.  I had not worked my way round to these Lesley James pieces when I was welcomed to the exhibit by one of the curators, who pointed them out to me, and I was glad she had as I would certainly have missed their textural connection with the 19th century manufacturers:

Lesley James surfaces traces

At the far end of the gallery is a floor-to-ceiling map showing the location of all the major brickworks.  It is an excellent way of showing just how important the area was for the production of bricks, tiles and terracotta.

In this section of the gallery, the focus shifts from present to past, and some of the marvellous tiles and moulded terracotta pieces are located here, together with the video.  This is where the exhibition makes a slight gear change from modern art gallery to beautifully displayed items of heritage.  Both flanking the map and at its foot, are examples of locally made bricks, each one marked with the name of the works that produced it, with a key to identify which name related to which manufacturing works.  In Farndon, on Brewery Lane, there is a Llay Hall brick more or less randomly incorporated into the left side of the road, all on its own, face up.  I have no idea what it is doing there, but it was great to see two of its relatives on display, from Llay Hall Brickworks in Sydallt.

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J.C. Edwards ceramic tiles, rescued from a condemned property on the Air Products factory site in 1989, and restored and reconstructed in 1993.

The main manufacturers represented at the exhibition are Dennis Ruabon Ltd and  J.C. Edwards of Ruabon, both important local producers of bricks, tiles and terracotta.

J.C. Edwards tiles were particularly valued and were installed locally at Liverpool’s Pier Head, and at the Lever Brothers village Port Sunlight on the Wirral, and were bought from as far away as Singapore, Egypt, Panama and India.  Edwards also provided the floor tiles for the kitchens on the Titanic. There is at least one of his tiles in the British Museum, designed by Lewis Foreman Day.

Examples of Dennis Ruabon Ltd terracotta work can be seen locally in Chester at the Westminster Motor Car and Coach Works and the Central Arcade in Hope Street, Wrexham.  Further afield, the Grand Metropole Hotel in Blackpool and Wellington House, at Buckingham Gate in London are high profile examples of  Dennis Ruabon Ltd work.  Whilst Edwards specialized in brickworks based on the Etruria Marl unique to the area, Dennis had interests in a variety of industries, including  quarries, coal pits, waterworks, brickworks and a tramway.

Tiles by J.C. Edwards

Tiles by J.C. Edwards, Henry Dennis, Monk and Newell and the Pant Works

The use of clay pressed into moulds was an excellent way of enlivening buildings, giving them celebratory flourishes without all the costs involved in stone masonry.  The use of moulds that could be re-used many times, enabled manufacturers to produce catalogues for architects, from which their customers could choose appropriate features, which not only made decorative flourishes affordable, but resulted in their proliferation, particularly on roofs.  Once you have seen the items on display, as well as those more elaborate versions shown in the video, it encourages you to look up in places like Wrexham and surrounding villages to spot the terracotta work that gave many local towns a real sense of pride.

Dennis Ruabon Ltd chimney

The layout of the works was elegant and well thought out, with each item widely spaced from the next, allowing it to be appreciated without distraction.  The combination of modern art works and 19th century heritage objects worked beautifully.

All the signage was in Welsh and English, and there was a  handout introducing the modern artists whose works were on display, together with  the 19th century manufacturers J.C. Edwards and Dennis Ruabon Ltd.  I picked up the Welsh version, assuming that it was bilingual; presumably there was an English version as well, so if you don’t read Welsh, look out for it.  I was rescued by Google Translate 🙂

The friendly and helpful curator of the exhibition, whose name I failed to catch, told me that over 2000 people had visited since the exhibition opened in March, with a number of them either former workers or their families sharing experiences.  Certainly, from my own perspective of things I have found in my garden, the Llay Hall brick randomly set into the side of a lane in Farndon, and my enormous affection for 19th century tiles in general and the Westminster Car and Coachworks (now the public library) in Chester in particular, it was very easy to relate to this exhibition.  The modern art pieces also work really well, balancing the older pieces and offering a new way of looking at this type of heritage, as well as engaging the visitor in their own right with thoughts about how heritage can be remembered, explored and, when necessary, lamented.

There was a school party arriving as we left, and on the table by the door I noticed that there was a pile of A4 sheets showing illustrations of three different statues, with an empty space for children to add their ideas for a monumental work.  We flipped through the completed sheets, and they were brilliantly inventive.  They made me remember what it was like to be a child with all that flying, chaotic, no-holds-barred imagination.  I particularly liked the giant robin with a big mouth in its side were its wing should be, complete with a healthy set of teeth.  The giant jelly fish statue was also rather terrific, but they all had something to offer.  Some were surprisingly very abstract.  It was a marvellous idea.

The gallery is a welcoming place, completely unintimidating. I both admired and enjoyed the entire feel of the place.  My only actual grumble about  it is that apart from seating for watching the video there was no seating in the gallery for those who have less than perfectly functioning legs, or who just want to sit and soak up the exhibits.

Practicalities:

The gallery is open 10-4, Monday to Saturday and the exhibition is free to visit.  We didn’t investigate what else the gallery has to offer, so it would be worth checking what else is available and whether there is a ticket charge if you want to visit anything other than the exhibition space (Gallery 1).  Full details for visitors and future exhibits are at https://www.typawb.wales/plan-your-visit.  You can also follow them on Twitter at https://twitter.com/TyPawb

We parked in the multi-storey carpark on Market Street, which has lifts down to the ground floor where the gallery and the food /retail space are located.  It was easy to find, and unlike some multi-storeys, the spaces were generous.  Do not leave your carpark ticket in the car – the pay station is on the ground floor outside the doors to the elevators, and access to the elevators requires you to put your car park ticket into a ticket reader by the side of the door.

Tŷ Pawb has been shortlisted for Art Fund Museum of the Year, the winner of which will be announced in July 2022.  Here’s hoping!
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Source: Ty Pawb

Sources:

Ty Pawb
Exhibition: Tales from Terracottapolis
www.typawb.wales/tales-from-terracottapolis

Exhibition handout in Welsh:  Chwedlau o Terracottapolis 19/03/22 – 11/06/22


More re Wrexham’s brick, tile and terracotta manufacturing history:

Wrexham Leader
There was gold in the red of Dennis Ruabon
https://www.leaderlive.co.uk/news/20131331.gold-red-dennis-ruabon/

Old Bricks – History at your feet
Ruabon Area
https://www.brocross.com/Bricks/Penmorfa/Pages/ruabon1.htm

Coflein
Hafod Red Brick Works; Dennis Ruabon Brickworks, Rhosllanerchrugog
https://coflein.gov.uk/en/site/40776/

Wrexham History
Henry Dyke Dennis and the Red Works, by John Davies
https://www.wrexham-history.com/henry-dyke-dennis-red-works/

Pontcysyllte
Brickworks
https://www.pontcysyllte-aqueduct.co.uk/object/brickworks/

Hansard 1803 – 2005
Brick and Tile Industry, Wrexham Area: Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Colonel J. H. Harrison.] – Mr. J. Idwal Jones (Wrexham)
https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1958/jun/10/brick-and-tile-industry-wrexham-area


More on Ty Pawb:

Ty Pawb
“About” page
https://www.typawb.wales/about/

The Guardian
Tŷ Pawb review – an art gallery that truly is everybody’s house. By Rowan Moore
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/sep/01/ty-pawb-review-art-gallery-everybodys-house-wrexham-market

Architect’s Journal
Something for everybody: Ty Pawb art gallery by Featherstone Young
https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/buildings/something-for-everybody-ty-pawb-art-gallery-by-featherstone-young

Wrexham Leader
Ty Pawb, Wrexham, shortlisted for Art Fund museum of the year
https://www.leaderlive.co.uk/news/20126804.ty-pawb-shortlisted-museum-year/


More on artists in the exhibition mentioned in this post

Paul Eastwood
https://www.paul-eastwood.net/

Lesley James
https://www.lesley-james.com/

Antony Gormley
https://www.antonygormley.com/

 

 

Telling Stories from Handling Medieval and Early Modern Objects

Many thanks to Chester Archaeological Society for circulating the news that Dr Katherine Wilson (Associate Professor in Later Medieval European History, University of Chester) was inviting CAS members to see and handle medieval objects in Chester from the Grosvenor Museum’s collections at two pop-up events.  Both were part of the Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries initiative.  The first event was on the day that I attended, the 3rd March at the Garret Theatre in the Story House, and another on the 4th March.  We were all greeted warmly by the team from Chester University, which included students who were seated in front of trays full of objects for us to go and investigate and learn about.

The format was very straightforward and worked perfectly.  A number of trays containing the objects were organized on a u-shaped table layout, so that we could easily move between them without being on top of each other.  In front of each tray was a University of Chester student, all of them helping us to explore the objects, encouraging discussions and real involvement with the objects in front of us and how they might lead us to understand more about the lives that left them behind.  Each tray had a selection of very different objects, so in each case there was a lot to talk about.  I didn’t catch the names of the students, but they were excellent.

Chester has a rich Medieval past, but as the team made clear, most people thinking about Medieval Chester focus almost exclusively in terms of the Cathedral and the half-timbered shop fronts, when there are not only other great buildings, like St John’s Church (Chester’s first cathedral), but there are also all the objects that have been excavated over the years, the items of every day life that people used, wore, carried with them or used in their daily work.  These items bring to life, at least in the imagination, the people who owned them.

Sole of a leather shoe, beautifully shaped. Source and copyright: The Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries (MOB)

Each object has a knack of opening windows into other parts of Medieval life that are no longer easily visible or reproducible.  The shoes were particularly evocative.  The first tray at which I sat down contained fragments of a black material, some very thin, one rather thick.  When I was asked what I thought they were, I said the first thoughts that came into my head: leather, protective, item of clothing.  I guessed a hood, perhaps because I was drenched from rain 🙂  They were, of course, fragments of shoes.  In the other boxes there were far more complete items, one sole with an additional patch of leather attached over the heel as a protective layer, much like a flat shoe today.  All of them bore the signs of wear, most of them were marked by tiny holes where one piece had been connected to another, and there was even a fabulous child’s shoe with an open toe.  These shoes, preserved in a waterlogged ditch just outside Chester, posed so many questions – how expensive were they (a goose, a sheep?), and in turn were they high status objects?  Were they everyday wear or were they only worn for best?  Where did their owners wear them?  How far did their owners, wearing their leather shoes, travel for trade, as messengers, or on pilgrimage?

Two of the keys in the object handling trays. Source and copyright: The Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries (MOB)

There were several keys, some of which had remarkably patterned and intricate ends or bits.  For every huge key there must have been a vast door, opening into home or business premises, whole worlds within worlds.  For every tiny key, each fascinating in its own complexity, there is a missing lock, a missing box and the missing contents to contemplate.  Perhaps such keys, each either looped or perforated at the tops, were carried on a string, worn around the neck when small enough or tied to a belt or locked in a draw, along with other keys.  Whilst the keys themselves were portable, and the small keys may have opened small and very portable chests, the big keys probably opened big doors, either room doors or cupboard doors, and whilst the keys themselves were portable, what they were opening was much less so.

The pieces of wheel-thrown pottery were impressively large and well made.  There was no sign of glazing, so these were probably very practical, every day items.  Being rim sherds, the diameters could be calculated to give an idea of the size of the pots.  There were no bases, so it was not possible to see if there was any sign of the sort of charring that would be expected for cooking.  Perhaps they were used for storage.  They were solid and designed to be moved around, re-used and to do a reliable, practical job.  A piece of handle probably belonged to an even bigger vessel, looking very like a Roman amphora handle, thick and ribbed, impressively chunky.  The contents of the vessel must have been heavy to require such big handles, perhaps a liquid of some sort.  If these items travelled, and were broken in the process, it was probably in the process of being shifted across a room or in the case of the thick-handled vessel, perhaps being carted from farm or port to market.

Medieval floor tile. Source and copyright: The Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries (MOB)

Medieval floor tiles seem like the antithesis of mobility or portability, but they too had travel tales to tell, as one of the students pointed out very vividly.  Between the pattern designers, the clay diggers, the mould-makers, the artisans and those who laid the floors, these pieces passed from hand to hand until they were eventually laid on the ground.  They are thick, about 3.5 cms from memory, and as the lady sitting next to me pointed out at one of the trays, there was little sign of inclusions in the fabric.  This presumably made them less prone to cracking, more able to bear the weight of people walking over them.  The tiles were splendid, the glazed ones with the indented moulded decoration capturing light as we moved them.  In candle light, the images, lions and griffins, must have appeared to shift and shimmer, providing them with a type of dynamism beyond the pattern that the contributed to on the floor.  I was looking at the Victorian floor tiles in Chester Cathedral last week, for which I have a guilty liking based on the hallways of countless terraced houses around the country, but when compared to the Medieval ones they seem very two-dimensional and glossy.  The Medieval ones have a texture, luminosity and energy that are truly remarkable.

There was one piece, possibly a tile, that was neither rectangular or glazed, but perfectly round with a lion’s head looking out.  The puzzle, the student told me, was that the rectangular ones were all mass-produced, because they would be laid on floor, just like modern ones, but round ones were most unusual.  This was small, only about 10cm in total diameter, and deeper than the square ones.  It was also, if memory serves, made of stone.  The lion’s head was painted on, not moulded, and although the disk itself would have been fairly tolerant of feet, I wonder about that lion.  A possibility is that it was the centre of a radiating design, but the radiating pieces would also have to be specially shaped, and if so, where are they?  As he said, a puzzle, but a very nice one.

A remarkable ampulla. Source and copyright: The Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries (MOB)

Some of the objects came from outside of Britain.  A gorgeous little cross within a circle, just a few centimetres across, was from Siena in Italy, and was probably sewn on to a piece of clothing, and would have looked like a brooch.  Other items may have worked their ways all the way down the Silk Road, eventually finding their way to Chester.  One particularly startling piece, featuring a very austere male face, is a tiny St Thomas Becket flask for containing holy water, called an ampulla (ampullae in the plural), the ears forming little loops for string attachment to a belt or clothing.  Its weight suggests that it was made of lead.  Some of these long-travelled objects were moulded, and easy to mass produce, but owning them would still have been precious, often representing a serious achievement, something to which others might aspire, and making the owner visibly one of a circle of similar achievers, irrespective of birth or background.
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Silver spoon handle with face of St Peter topped by a cockerel. Source and copyright: The Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries (MOB)

In another tray was a tiny but highly decorative little piece of metal, a devotional token. It is in the face of a head, and was broken below the neck, so certainly had once been somewhat longer.  It probably had something of a similar role to a pilgrim’s badge – the souvenir or, rather more importantly, an indication of pride, the sense of achievement with which a particular devotional religious task is associated.  There was also a very, very thin copper ring on the same tray that had a wide section at the front, with tiny little carved symbols marking it, thought to have been different events in the owner’s life.  In another tray was a silver spoon handle from Rome showing the face of St Peter and topped with a cockerel, representing Peter’s denial of Christ three times. These three items were so small and personal that they spoke of how people who made long journeys, perhaps people who did not have sufficient silver pennies to make many such journeys, valued these objects as emblems that declared numerous concepts – achievement, affiliation with an idea or an ideal, veneration of a religion or a preferred saint.  One student (wish I had known any of their names) had on his own jacket a replica pilgrim’s badge of geese in a basket, the symbol of St Werburgh, whose remains were moved to Chester Abbey (now Cathedral) in the 10th century, attracting  pilgrims.

Poppy worn by thousands of British people each year in memory of those lost and wounded in war. Photograph by Philip Stephens. Source: Wikipedia

Taking this a step further, people have been using objects to signify identity, nationality and membership since prehistory, and we still wear objects to communicate similar ideas.  Examples are badges of membership of a particular association or society; shirts supporting a particular sporting team; sweatshirts declaring an affiliation to a particular university; handbags advertising how elite they are by displaying their designers’ logos; poppies on Remembrance Sunday expressing our debt to those injured in war and, just recently MPs in the symbol-laden House of Commons wearing Ukrainian flag ribbons.  Today some of these icons and symbols travel the globe very easily, but travel was more difficult in the past, and some images that found there ways into Medieval society travelled from other parts of the planet via trade and pilgrim routes, copied and re-interpreted as they travelled.  The emblems of association with guilds, religions and the signals of achievement must have had a much greater depth to them, and new images and their ideas must have been both challenging and fascinating.

National Archives Currency Converter showing the results for the estimated value of £1.00 in 1440

Distributed through a number of the trays  were coins, tiny silver pennies, so thin that they were terrifying to handle and difficult to read.  One was a Henry VI penny, so beautiful and so subtle that it looked more like a piece of ornamentation than something one would do business with.  The question of how one measures value came up.  Many exchanges were done in kind, trading one set of skills or products for another in the form of services, foodstuffs and finished products but for  assessing those who had coinage, the National Archives has a fabulous Currency Convertor, enables you to put in a year, a monetary value (like a penny, pound or £10, 3s, 1d and press a button to calculate how many horses, heads of cattle, sheep wool, days of labour etc you would get for your money.  It goes back to 1270 and gives a vivid sense of what value something may have been in the past, and since I found it about 10 years ago has always made me think of historical coins in terms of what that would have purchased. If we plonk ourselves down somewhere in the middle of the king’s first reign, say 1440, when there were about 240 pennies to the pound, what would £1.00 have bought you? One horse, two cows or seven stones of wool.  That also equates to 33 days of a skilled tradesman’s labour.   All those little pennies added up to something very significant if only, just as today, you could save enough of them.

It’s amazing how one can get things so badly wrong.  One object, with a very sharp point and spurs of different sizes, I speculated might have been a device for cleaning sheep hooves.  I am a bit livestock-orientated, having specialized in livestock management in my own research.  On rethinking, I thought that it might have been used for both piercing and shaping leather or other materials.  Turns out that it was another key, presumably incredibly well worn 🙂  One of the great things about the object handling event was that there was absolutely no derision.  All ideas were welcomed.  Handling the objects, talking about them, thinking about them was a great way of bringing all that reading to life and imagining how people’s lives actually looked and felt.

Grosvenor Museum. Photograph by Dennis Turner. Source: Geograph via Wikipedia

There will be an exhibition based on a similar theme at the Grosvenor Museum in Chester beginning at the end of April.  I used to volunteer there, working on finds during the 1980s.  Dates and top-level details for the upcoming exhibition, which will probably be added to in the future as the exhibition nears, are at:
https://events.westcheshiremuseums.co.uk/event/medieval-chester-retold/

Repeated thanks to Dr Katherine Wilson and her excellent team, who did such an excellent job of talking us through the objects on the trays in front of them.  Thanks again too to Chester Archaeological Society for the email that told me that it was happening.  A great couple of hours.  For more about the Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries project, see the website at:
https://mob.chester.ac.uk/
https://mobilityofobjectsacrossboundaries.wordpress.com/

I went for a second wander around the cathedral afterwards, and was lucky enough to catch the organ in full swing.  Glorious.  Although this is a 19th century organ, with bunches of pipes popping up everywhere, there are records of an organ in the abbey since before the Dissolution, perhaps contemporary with some of the objects that we were handling today.
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Links connected with Thursday’s event:

Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries website
https://mobilityofobjectsacrossboundaries.wordpress.com/

Mobility of Objects: Pilgrim badges and devotional tokens from the Grosvenor Museum, Chester (video)
https://www.openartsarchive.org/resource/mobility-objects-pilgrim-badges-and-devotional-tokens-grosvenor-museum-chester

Object Videos Pilgrimage Badges and Devotional Tokens (video)
https://mobilityofobjectsacrossboundaries.wordpress.com/object-videos-handling-session-2-pilgrimage-badges-and-devotional-tokens/

Education Object Boxes
https://mob.chester.ac.uk/activities/education-object-boxes-for-schools/

Other sources

Useful details about ampullae
Ampulla
https://medievallondon.ace.fordham.edu/collections/show/90

A Chester Local List Workshop – what is local listing all about?

A few weeks ago, Chester Archaeological Society forwarded a request from Cheshire West and Chester (CWAC) for participants to attend a Local List Workshop.  I volunteered, but at that time I had only the fuzziest idea of what a local list actually is.  This post aims to clarify the subject of local lists and provides an account what happened during the fascinating Chester workshop.

A lot of county and city councils have programmes dedicated to local listing, and are running their own workshops and other forms of interaction with the public in order to launch their own local lists.  So what is a local list when it emerges from its burrow?

What Local Listing is not

The Grade 1 nationally-listed Chester Cathedral. Shame about the big purple sign, which completely destroys the first impression.  One of the lessons of Chester is that inappropriate signage and shop frontages can intrude very negatively on an otherwise beautiful city.

First, it’s useful to understand what local listing is not.  Local listing is not the same as the more familiar sense of the term listing, which is where a building or monument is “graded.”  Most of us are aware that when a building is officially listed and allocated a grade (Grade 1, grade 2 etc), it is given a special status and there are limits on what can be done to it and how it can be used.  Here’s part of the English Heritage explanation:  “Listing marks and celebrates a building’s special architectural and historic interest, and also brings it under the consideration of the planning system, so that it can be protected for future generations.  The older a building is, and the fewer the surviving examples of its kind, the more likely it is to be listed.”  There are currently 511 listed buildings (Grade 1, Grade 2* and Grade 2) in Chester City Ward alone.  Chester Cathedral, for example, is Grade 1 listed.  This is a national designation, and usually referred to as National Listing.

Local Listing

Local listing is different.  For a start, it is not a national designation and is not determined by a centralized national unit.  It is organized on a local basis by the council.  Here are some of the details on the Cheshire Local List Project website:

“In addition to the National designations, (including Listed Buildings, Scheduled Monuments, Registered Parks and Gardens and Registered Battlefields) local heritage can also be identified through the production of Local Heritage Lists of non-designated heritage assets. These enable the significance of any building or site on the list to be better taken into account in planning applications affecting the building or site or its setting.”

As I discovered recently when contesting a planning application, one of the sticking points in objecting to any planning application is the concept of a “material consideration.”  A material consideration is something that a planning department takes into consideration when accepting or rejecting a planning application.  More to the point, anything that is not a material consideration is ignored when objections are made.  Local listing ensures that even those aspects of the built environment that are not nationally listed and have no grading are included as a matter of material consideration, which may make all the difference to communities attempting to care for their assets.

National, graded listing is designed to protect buildings and other sites, and ensures that when changes are proposed, a process of consultation takes place, but there are many other buildings, sites and objects that are not nationally listed, but nevertheless have an important role in communities, either because they contribute to community identity, or represent significant markers of local history.   As locally listed entities, these become subject to material consideration in the planning process.

The Cheshire Local List Project (CLLP) website goes on:

The Cheshire Local List gives importance to local heritage within the planning system, but also allows the expression of community identity, both through the list itself and through engagement in the research and designation process. It is a key component of conservation area management and Neighbourhood Plan development, and allows numerous stakeholders to better understand and appreciate the heritage of the county and its communities.

It would have been helpful if the word “listing” had been confined to national graded listing to avoid any confusion, but hey-ho, we’re stuck with it, and whatever it is called it is a really good idea, assuming that it is well implemented and becomes an integrated part of local planning procedures.  Local listing is a government initiative that sits at a level beneath graded listing, and is a much less formal designation, but could be just as important for communities if they work with councils to identify important local sites that cannot be nationally listed.  It puts the onus on councils to engage with the idea, but my hour on Google suggests that many have taken up the gauntlet.

The idea of the workshop

One of the Project’s aims is to be community-lead.  Here’s the official wording:  “We see the Cheshire Local List as a community-driven dataset. Rather than impose detailed criteria, which may be restrictive and exclusive, we have developed non-asset-specific criteria which we hope will enable local communities to define local heritage significance on their own terms.”

The term “community-driven” is often an indication that an organization intends to do nothing at all unless poked firmly in the ribs by some community-based pressure group, but here we had excellent James Dixon, Built Environment Officer (Conservation and Design) at CWAC, reaching out to Chester Archaeology Society, amongst other groups, for people to come and participate in a series of workshops.  The objective, ongoing, is to understand sensory experiences of small groups of people walking the same route through Chester to see how this might help to build an idea of what the concept of local listing might contribute to a city that already has 511 nationally designated listed buildings.   Rather than looking at the merit of individual buildings, this approach sought to develop an idea of how people respond to and interact with the city as a whole.

The approach is evidence-based.  Evidence-based approaches have become popular in all sorts of research that involves human interaction, including archaeology, social science and economic development as well as urban planning.  They have largely emerged from the basic idea of phenomenology – the way in which different living spaces are experienced and interpreted by individuals and communities – but are now a tool for developing  strategies or policies.  It takes the idea that how people live their lives and how they perceive their built, natural and cultural environment should influence what decisions should be made about those environments.  First, of course, is the requirement to understand people’s responses, both conscious and subconscious to the context under discussion, in this case the city of Chester.  In our workshop group at least, it produced some interesting results.

Another concept that has been incorporated into the Cheshire approach is “group value.”  This divorces heritage in its own right from other things we appreciate, such as assets, objects and spaces and how we experience all of these in a sensory way.  Valuable buildings are easy to put a finger on, describe and evaluate, but the open spaces in front of them, the odds and ends of  modern sculpture, ancient architectural lumps and bumps, and the occasional well-positioned tree or cobbled footpath are more difficult to evaluate.  And yet, they too are part of the heritage landscape, the built environment, the cultural context or whatever else we are calling it this year.  My above whinge about the purple sign in front of Chester Cathedral is just as important to people’s perception of how we move through our cultural space as the building we want to engage with, because signage is an attention grabber, and it manages expectations.

Archaeologists and historians are always flipping between what a site, building or object might have meant in the past and what it means in the present and how that distinction influences how we interpret the past.  That’s the archaeologist in me talking, but it works for any entity that we look back on from the perspective of time.  Cities and towns are accumulations, so we are reacting not to a single slice of time, but to an amalgamation that spans the oldest to the newest building and and is generally  experienced by the user (shopper, visitor, worker) as something that instead of having many multi-layered and multi-temporal identities, has one single identity in their own minds, in this case the identity of being Chester.

Because we humans are all so different from one another, a Chester identity is no single thing, because different people will respond to it in different ways depending on, for example, nationality, familiarity, personal interests, and the way in which they are intending to interact with it.  So Chester actually has multiple identities, each person perceiving the city as single cohesive entity but each doing so from a different perspective,  meaning that there are multiple identities of Chester, all of them compressing the complexities built up by time into a hurried present-day reality through which we pass, often in a tearing hurry.

In order to move beyond this sense of Chester being any single thing, James has come up with a method of directing participants in the workshop to look at Chester in an alternative way, something that had nothing to do with arranging its buildings chronologically or by function, but by asking us to think about how we reacted to different sensory aspects of it.

Participating in the workshop

Post-Covid there are a lot of empty shops, looking abandoned and derelict, dragging down the image of their neighbouring shops. The entire of the St Werburgh Row is devoid of life, and tragic. This initiative, however, where empty shop windows are provided with imaginative Chester-themed boards is excellent, raising a smile. The one here is the former Patisserie Valerie on Bridge Street.

On the 18th of November, the 90 minute workshop started at the bottom of Bridge Street, where we received our instructions from James, an excellent, reassuring communicator who turns out to have a natural gift for herding cats.  From the bottom of Bridge Street to The Cross, and then from The Cross to the top of Northgate Street, the workshop set out to build an evidence base of sensory experiences including, for example, colour, sound, smell and texture, and more elusive concepts like fun and solitude.

James handed each of us a 6x4inch card, at the top of which was written a single word.  There were eight of us in the group, which was a good number for exploring some of the concepts, and enabled us to exchange notes on three occasions, once after we had walked Bridge Street, once after Northgate Street, and once in the town square, outside the town hall.  The topics were, in no order, were texture, colours, sound, stillness, views, words, and mine was fun.

There were Covid-aware latex gloves for those of us who wanted to explore texture by touch.  We could partner up with someone else, we could proceed en masse, or we could go off individually.  Apart from that we were given no direction so that the thoughts that came to us were not influenced in any way by James, or by the council’s objectives.

The idea was to write down words that occurred to us in relation to the given topic on the card.  I have to say my heart sank because I had no idea how I was supposed to interpret “fun,” but it was hugely enjoyable once I got into the swing of it.  The photos on this post are snaps that I took as I was walking around and thinking about my target word.  It came in very handy for consolidating my thinking as I went along.  If I had had a different word on my card, the photos would have been entirely different, which is an interesting thought in its own right.  For example, if I had had “stillness” or “texture,” both my words and photos would of course have been quite different.

The record cards

The keywords are clever, because they avoid simple reductionist descriptions based on liking or disliking, positives and negatives and instead focus on more nuanced responses and descriptions.

When he set us off on our own, James said that there was no right or wrong thing to write down, that the whole point was to let us react and write accordingly.  We had a card for Bridge Street and either the reverse side or a new card for Northgate Street.  One of mine is shown here, annotated to make it legible.  As well as capturing our thoughts so that we didn’t have to remember them, they helped us to marshal our thoughts when we gathered to discuss our findings.  We handed the record cards in at the end, so that James could collate them with those of other workshops.  The cards were an important part of the workshop.  Several of us had to apologize for our handwriting 🙂

Discussing the keywords

James was great at getting us together, on four separate occasions.  Two of the discussions were about what we had written on our record cards.  Here’s just a bit of  that, but I am sure that James received radically different comments when running different workshop groups, so this is just a sample of a sample.

In all the discussions it was clear is that we were all looking in different directions, and that’s partly because of the keywords, which directed attention to different parts of the built environment, and partly because of how we interpreted those keywords and what took our interest.

The Cross

Our first stop to exchange notes was at The Cross, where Bridge Street meets with the other three primary roads preserved from the legionary fortress, Eastgate Street, Watergate Street and Northgate Street.  We had at that stage walked only up Bridge Street.  James asked us what struck as what we found surprising about Bridge Street, within the parameters of the keywords on our cards.   I didn’t know anyone’s names, so these comments are all anonymous, and are shorter, simplified versions of what was discussed:

The Rows. There is a lot more stillness here than down on the streets, at least at the moment.  It makes for a nicer experience, but I am sure that the shops would prefer greater footfall.

Views:  As one looks up towards the Cross, the impression is of a great complexity pattern of walls and facades of buildings that forms an incredibly intricate pattern that frames the view from the floor up.  Some bits stick out, some don’t, and all the buildings have their own character, but they lead unambiguously to The Cross, along a road that is surprisingly wide given its Medieval past.  The rows give the whole thing a very distinctive feel, and means that the shops on those level are set back from the road. Everything converges on St Peter’s church, which is a big red sandstone building that draws the eye.  The path from one end to the other, seen as a view, is almost too much for the eye to make sense of.

Touches of colour in the old buildings above shop level stand out and are welcome.

Colours:  The biggest surprise was the contrast between the more or less uniform character of the builds above the shop frontages versus the brightly multi-coloured shop frontages themselves.  There were only a few details in colour on the older half-timbered buildings, which made the colour stand out.  Chester at street level is a torrent of colour, but when one captures a little of it in the buildings that soar above the shops, it is a lovely piece of deliciousness.

Sound:  In this area, the biggest surprise was what could not be heard.  There was such a cacophony of clinks, roadworks and street music, that the things that one could see going on around one, were lost in the other noise.  A pair of hard heels could be heard, but trainers and other soft-soled shoes were lost in the overall sound.  Even individual voices were difficult to make out.

Words:  At shop level the impact of words, in the form of text, was impossible to avoid, and overwhelming.  Branding and signage dominate, in a variety of lights and colours, and it is difficult to differentiate one from another.  Silent, in terms of audibility, they still manage to form a cacophony.

Different ideologies expressed in different building materials, different approaches, different design ideas,  different colours and textures.

Texture:  Texture occurs at every level.  It changes underfoot, but is most obvious in the walls, which are red sandstone, yellow sandstone, brick, wood, concrete and many other materials, which each has its own personality.  Decorative plasterwork is very distinctive and very fine, but not always noticed.  Each texture has its own character – granular, soft, smooth, slippery etc.  Each adds to the diversity of the buildings.

Stillness:  This one was rather sad in many ways at this point.  The main stillness was embedded in failed, closed-down shops.  There had been several before Covid, but there have been some tragic losses since.  These were all devoid of movement and interaction, dead areas that people walked past without looking.  More amusingly, anywhere not selling coffee had a certain stillness, by contrast to those places that were, which were busy, noisy and drew attention to themselves.

Fun:  There is not a lot of fun at foot level because it is all shops with unlovely frontages, but look up and there is a lot to make one smile in the decorative architectural elements that embellish the buildings, particularly the 19th century facades, a bit like excessively ornate wedding cake decoration, and improbable towers and incredibly ornate ironwork.  Often OTT, and very confident, these flourishes  are always very finely crafted.  They are both fine and truly great fun.

The Story House

The Story House is a thing of real ugliness, but even so I would defend it energetically if anyone were to threaten it because it is a monument to its era.  Not all heritage is pretty.  The same could be said for the telephone box in the foreground.  The bollards, however, at the edge of the road, were agreed by all to be cultural as well as physical barriers.

Our next stop was at the Story House.  Northgate Street had started out very like Bridge Street, with lots of engaging architecture similar to Bridge Street, again sitting on top of ordinary shop frontages, but as one proceeds, it opens out and there’s a lot of more architecture to see, some from more recent times, not all terribly positive.  The four most dominant buildings as one filters through the narrow entry to the market square are Chester Cathedral, the Town Hall, the Motor Works, and the Story House.  There is also a very conspicuous frontage to The Forum Shopping Centre, which incorporates the market.  At the moment, the Christmas market dominates the public space, closely clustered and overwhelmingly full of cooking smells.  We walked past the market and gathered in front of the Story House to discuss the walk up Northgate Street.

Inevitably and fascinatingly, we all talked about how interesting it was to compare the walk from the bottom of Bridge Street to The Cross with the walk from The Cross to the Story House.

Views:  This was a story of constriction within fairly narrow confines to a sense of release in the big space in front of the Market Square and the Town Hall, but it was also a story of disappointment.  The sense of being lead somewhere by views of trees beyond the narrow start of Northgate Street lead to nothing more than an untidy space that was undefined and offered nothing like the oasis that was suggested by the trees.  At this time of year, particularly, the trees lend very little because they are deciduous and have dropped all of their leaves untidily onto the ground.  The Christmas market did not improve matters.  The cathedral, to one side, was a pleasant presence but did not dominate.  The main dominating factor, in terms of being lead forward, was actually the Story House, not Chester’s most aesthetically pleasing building.  Beyond the Story House, the symmetry collapses and there is nothing to tempt one forward.

Colours:  This is so dependent, just as it was on Bridge Street, on where you happen to look.  Ground level is bright and full of aggressive colours, but although on Bridge Street these were very jarring, they are more restrained on Northgate Street.  Looking up things are far simpler with black and white facades, and reddish-brown brickwork that provide a warmer feel.  The Christmas decorations were felt, by everyone who expressed an opinion, to be just right, not overstated or understated, but entirely suitable for the job in hand.

Sound:  In contrast with Bridge Street, Northgate Street was a far richer audio experience.  There was tapping, humming, rattling, the sound of wheeled suitcases on cobbles, a bicycle, and more human traffic, as well as the inevitable street music.  The sound of heeled shoes versus trainers was again particularly noticeable.  Reaching the marketplace, the noise of people talking increased enormously, and there was more traffic.

Words:  The plethora of promotional messages at street level was again dominant.  It was all very urban and vibrant, but there was also text in the historic buildings above the shops, where there were other messages to be seen that were resonant of the past.

Textures:  There were so many textures to be seen including the old versus the new, tiles versus glass, wood versus brickwork and the incorporation of carvings and sculptures into building facades.  As well as buildings, there were plants and trees to take into account, including moss on cobbles next to the cathedral.

Stillness:  The cathedral, a former abbey, is an oasis of stillness in the city, and offers a gateway into an inner peace, including its gardens.  The interface between the city and the peace beyond is provided by the Abbey Gate, and was probably the only entirely still place in the part of Chester that we walked on that day.

Fun:  Again there were a lot of excellent architectural details that were functionally unnecessary but expressed real exuberance.  Examples are the little sculptures in niches above the row of shops that includes Lakeland and Zara, little towers at the top of buildings and ornamental plasterwork on all sorts of buildings.  The overall impression of certain attention-grabbing buildings, like the town hall and the motor works lift the spirits, and both these draw attention to the positive impact of colour in building materials.

We did not, of course, explore internal spaces, but the idea of exploring interfaces between external spaces and internal spaces is an interesting one.  Little corridors leading from one space to another gave an almost secret feel to some of the city.

The good, the bad, and the highly nuanced

The other two discussions took place first in the public space in front of the Town Hall and the entrance to the market (The Forum Shopping Centre) and then at the point of Bridge Street where it becomes traffic-free and were less on what was on our cards than on our overall impressions.

Market / Town Hall Square

When we paused in front of the Town Hall, in what is usually an open area, we were asked what our impressions were of that public space.  The Christmas market was setting up, obscuring a sense of what it is like of most days of the week, but some interesting comments emerged.

Two of the dominant buildings, the Town Hall and the old Motor Works were exuberant, and were terrific examples of how whole buildings can express the enthusiasm and enjoyment (as well as ambition and pride) of those who created them.  They, together with the Story House and the Cathedral, surround the public open space.  The chap who was looking at “views” drew attention to how we had been funnelled from the lower end of Northgate Street, between buildings similar to those in Bridge Street into a space that, from a distance, with trees visible, had led to a sense of anticipation, but had very little to offer.  There were random odds and ends dotted around, leading to the sense that there was no cohesion in the space.  A very grubby Roman column here, a modern sculpture there, and an anti-terrorism barrier across the road.  I think that we all had the sense that nothing seemed properly integrated, and that a public space that might have had real potential was actually very drab, in spite of being surrounded by some great buildings, each of a very different but superb character.  We also looked at a bike rack that was very intrusive but could be placed somewhere less conspicuous and still be useful.  This was no piazza or plaza, and there was really nothing to celebrate.

The entrance to the indoor market.  A reminder of Chester’s Roman heritage, or just ugly?

I found myself almost back to back with a Roman soldier who was explaining something to a small group of visitors. I love the soldiers, who certainly come under the heading of “fun,” because wherever they go they raise a smile, but these soldiers, whether giving guided tours to adults or leading long strings of children wearing cardboard armour and carrying cardboard Legio XX shields, are a terrific innovation.  Some of us were also facing a Roman column that usually looks a little forlorn and isolated, and for which I have affection, but on that day looked more than a little farcical hemmed in on all sides by the Christmas market.   In Chester, a great effort has been made to incorporate the city’s Roman past, and there are constant, excellent reminders that help to reinforce the fact that as well as the built environment, the buried environment also plays an important role.  But that column could do with a rethink and a clean.

Little flourishes are worth looking out for.

Although the keywords on the record cards avoid simplistic likes and dislikes, positives and negatives, we found that in discussions value judgements were inevitable, because for every example of “fun” there is probably a “dull” in the next street, and for every ten tactile and aesthetically enjoyable examples of “texture” there is probably an edifice of brutal concrete nearby (the Pepper Street multi-storey car park springs to mind for both examples).  One of the interesting things from the discussions was that there are so many positives that the negatives stand out as noticeable intrusions on the positives.  One of the workshop members pointed out that anti-terrorist bollards, for example, are not only very ugly with their modern appearance and big lights, but give a misleading sense that there are better bits and less desirable bits of the city, separating  areas in which one is safe and where there are good thing to visit from those which may be not quite as safe, and not quite as worth visiting.  Once this was pointed out, everyone agreed, and we all understood that the city should not be seen in terms of what lies within and  what lies beyond those bollards, but that the perception is difficult to avoid.

Upstairs or downstairs – where does the fun lie?

Response to the keywords is a hugely personal thing.  I am guessing that many workshops would be required to capture even a small sample of what an entire community might think and feel about their living environment.  I interpreted “fun” as anything that would make me smile spontaneously.  I automatically looked away from the street level shopfronts to the upper levels where time, imagination and skill have wrought wonders. Some shop road level frontages are better than others, but for me all are brash, most of them frightfully ugly, and I hate shopping anyway, so nothing fun is to be found there.  But I have friends for whom shopping is hugely enjoyable, and the bright lights and colourful window dressings are all part of the enjoyment, and some of them would be puzzled by me describing architectural exuberance and decorative flourishes as “fun.”  So my interpretation of fun, confined to the upper levels where history looks down at me and I look back at it, would not be someone else’s.

Pausing again on Bridge Street

We paused again on Bridge Street, just on the uphill side of the anti-terrorist bollards, to discuss our views.  We were on borrowed time, as we had eaten up most of our 90 minutes, but we were all eager to point out the negatives of our immediate environment, because we all wanted to see improvement to encourage businesses to invest in that part of town.  Everyone agreed that the anti-terrorist bollards seemed, again, to cut one part of the street from another, and that the area north of Bridge Street was rather more prestigious than that to the south of them.  We also looked at some truly awful shop frontages, text-heavy, with lurid colours, tacky.  We asked about planning permission for frontages, as we were standing in front of a particular shocker at the time, and it turns out that they are indeed subject to planning permission, but that some retail outlets do not follow the procedures.  There is a lot of work to check up on those who ignore the rules, and it takes even longer to enforce the violated regulations.

The future

James said that he will feed back to Chester Archaeological Society about the results of the workshops once they have all been completed, and I really look forward to that.  Particularly, it will be interesting to know the answer to James’s own question – what can the local list do that designated graded listing does not already do in somewhere like Chester, which has listed buildings everywhere you turn?

The good news, even before the workshops have been completed and their findings collated, is that the Local List facility is already up and running and you can nominate an “asset” for local listing if you feel that it has particular community value and should be taken into account when planning and other issues are raised that might place it under threat.  You can find out full details on the Chester Local List Project website at the following address:
https://local-heritage-list.org.uk/cheshire/guidance:

The Proposal Process

When you make a proposal or proposals for the Cheshire Local List, you will first have the option of creating and revising a draft that will not be reviewed until you submit it. When you submit your proposal, a Conservation Officer will check it to see if more information is needed. If so, it will come back to you for revision, and if not it will be moved forward for approval.

Make a proposal for the Cheshire Local List here

Approvals for nominations to the Cheshire Local List will be done by a panel of Conservation, Planning and Built Environment officers from Halton, Cheshire West and Chester and Cheshire East.

The final list will be put forward for formal adoption by each of the three boroughs in due course as part of the development of new Supplementary Planning Documents for local heritage.

The Assessment Criteria are here:
https://local-heritage-list.org.uk/cheshire/assessment-criteria

The top-level asset categories are Buildings; Parks & Gardens; Landmarks, Art Works and Way Finders; Other Sites, Structures & Landscapes, but see the following page for more information on each category:
https://local-heritage-list.org.uk/cheshire/assessment-criteria-asset-type

If or when I hear more about the project, I’ll post about it on the blog.

Hidden Holt: An illuminating must-visit exhibition currently at Wrexham Museum

Cover of the free English/Welsh booklet accompanying the exhibition published by Wrexham Heritage Service, 2021.

My thanks to Brian Payne of the Holt Local History Society for alerting me to the fact that the Hidden Holt exhibition has been launched at the Wrexham County Borough Museum, running until 29th January 2022.  I went last week my father, and we were both bowled over by how good it was.

The exhibition introduces the Roman tile, brick and pottery works that were spread across a number of fields to the northwest of Holt, next to the river Dee.  It uses an excellent combination of original artefacts, video,  information boards and both old and new photographs and diagrams to track the twin stories of the site itself and the history of its discovery and excavation.  Holt Local History Society has a long-standing interest in the Roman works, and commissioned the most recent geophysical survey work at the site, so it’s great to see their contribution to the story being celebrated.

The exhibition (free to enter) is in Gallery 3, to the left as you move beyond reception and the café to enter the display areas.  I’ve given an overview below, but I seriously recommend that you just go – it is a tremendous, professionally-produced and beautifully designed little exhibition with some superb objects on display and some excellent information boards that explain what you are looking at.  You won’t regret it.  If you’re in the mood, the café serves a great coffee and what looks like a rather delicious lunch 🙂

Survey and excavation

Arthur Acton –  page 5 of the booklet accompanying the exhibition.  Source: Wrexham Heritage Service, 2021

The story of how the site was recognized and investigated begins in the early 1600s when landowner Thomas Crue of Holt Hill suffered repeated damage to his plough on broken brickwork and eventually discovered a series of fifty 2ft-tall posts and recorded this in a letter now in the British Museum.  The letter was mentioned in the book Roman Cheshire by W. Thompson Watkins (1886).  Retired chemist and keen amateur historian Alfred Neobard Palmer read the book, and in 1905 decided to hunt for the remains that Crue had found.  He tracked down the original letter and accompanied by local vicar Jenkyn Jones, and with the permission of the landowner Mr Beard, he engaged in a series of fieldwalking expeditions that found plenty of fragments of Roman bricks, roof tiles and pottery over an area of some 20 acres.

Fold-out plan of the kilns at Holt, published by Grimes in 1930. (Scanned from my copy of “Holt, Denbighshire”)

Palmer was not an archaeologist, and the task of excavating the site was taken on by Wrexham solicitor and amateur archaeologist Arthur Acton.  Work began in 1907,  in Wall Lock Field, and continued until 1915.  Although he lectured prolifically about the site, Acton never published his work.  Fortunately some of his records survived, and he sold the finds to the National Museum of Wales.  After five years of admirable work, the Assistant Keeper of Archaeology at the National Museum, William F. Grimes who was better known as a prehistorian, published a comprehensive 235-page report on the site, complete with site plans, photographs and object illustrations.

Photograph and logo from the Archaeological Survey West website: http://www.archaeologicalsurveywest.co.uk/

Work did not stop there, and during the 1970s Geoffrey Bevan conducted both field walking activities and an excavation, finding Roman material that filled dozens of boxes, which were donated to the Grosvenor Museum in Chester.  Most recently, Holt Local History Society commissioned Archaeological Survey West to carry out a geophysical survey of the site,  to accurately fix the positions of the known buildings and to identify any unexcavated and previously unknown structures.  This was successfully completed in 2018, and demonstrated that the Holt complex was even bigger and more complex than Grimes, via Acton, had been able to determine.  There is, of course, the potential for future field research.

The exhibition

Piece of a colander manufactured at Holt, on display at the exhibition

The exhibition is based mainly around discoveries made during the Acton excavations, using the Grimes and later reports to explain what was found and what has been discovered since.  Between them, Crue, Palmer, Acton, Grimes, Bevan, Holt Local History Society and Archaeological Survey West have produced a history of what lies beneath those lush green fields, and this is what the exhibition introduces.

As usual usual the exhibition’s narrative is arranged in a clockwise direction, so turn left as you walk in to Gallery 3.  The exhibition begins with a video that explains the history of survey and excavation and then talks about the site itself.  It is well worth taking a seat and watching.  It lasts about 15-20 minutes and is chock-full of information with some terrific photographs, diagrams and artist impressions of what various structures may have looked like.   The technique of superimposing building plans over a modern aerial view of the fields is particularly useful for understanding how the site was composed and what each element consisted of.   From there, the excellently designed displays take the visitor through the site’s history.

Site plan of the Roman tile and pottery work displayed in the exhibition. Also in the excellent booklet accompanying the exhibition, full details in Sources below. Click to see a bigger version with fully legible text.  Source: Wrexham Heritage Service, 2021

The site was more elaborate than I realized, composed of a number of buildings as well as the kilns.  The image on the right is shown at full size in the exhibition, and shows how big a complex the Holt tile, brick and pottery works actually was.  This is a bang-up-to-date site plan, combining the information provided by Grimes in 1930 with the details obtained by Archaeological Survey West in 2018. What this and a lot of Acton’s photographs makes clear, is that the site was a fully integrated operation combining industrial, public and domestic architectural components. A senior manager had his own house, complete with hypocaust (under-floor) central heating, there was a public bath house, presumably for workers, a series of kilns for the manufacture of mainly tiles and pottery, and a barracks that may have housed workers, or alternatively a detachment of the Roman army based at Chester at this time.  The features shown in blue are unrecorded / unexcavated.  Those in dark brown are the building locations fixed in 2018, and those in paler brown those estimated by Grimes based on Acton’s work.

The main kiln plant at Holt, published by William Grimes in 1930. Scanned from my copy.

Although now the archaeological remains are covered with fields, Acton used photography extensively, and his site plans were detailed, many published by Grimes, and used in the exhibition to reveal and explain the different components of the site.  This is very helpful not only for understanding how the site worked as an end to end operation, but is invaluable for putting the objects into context.  Objects on their own tell a limited story, but when contextualized in terms of the buildings in which they were produced and used, come to life.  The exhibition does this brilliantly.

It was a good location for a tileworks.  Building stone was available in the immediate locality thanks to the Bunter sandstone, alluvial clay was available locally, woodlands were present for the provision of fuel to feed the kilns, and the river Dee provided direct access to Chester, 12 miles / 19km away, passing the civic settlement at Heronbridge.  The generally flat environment meant that building of roads was not particularly laborious.

The visitor is taken step-by-step through the production process, explaining how the kilns and drying sheds  were built and how they functioned. The kilns formed two main units, a larger (139ft / 52m long, consisting of a row of six kilns) and smaller twin-kiln built on the natural bed-rock.  Each kiln was rectangular and tile-lined with an arched stoke-hole for access.  A round pottery kiln was also located on the edge of the main kiln complex.  The oven floor was fascinating, consisting of a raised floor of tiles plastered with clay that were pierced with holes that acted as vents.  I was fascinated to see that the drying shed was provided with a hypocaust, better known as the under-floor heating system that was used in villas and bath houses.  These, like the kilns, were stoked and kept hot to ensure that the tiles, pottery and bricks were dried through after firing.

The exhibition displays a number of artefacts, including a roof tile, a brick and a triangular atefix tile marked with the letters LEGXXVV, an abbreviation for the twentieth legion, known as Valeria Victrix (valiant and victorious).  The antefix tile, one of which is shown in the exhibition (photo left and illustration below) also shows Legio XX’s dramatic running boar symbol.   Legio XX was stationed at Chester from AD87, and the Holt works appears to have been established shortly afterwards, reaching its peak output at around AD135, and falling out of use in the mid 3rd Century.

Antefix tiles from Holt. Source: Grimes 1930

A display board shows the vast range of products that were made at the site, including floor and roof tiles, and a variety of different pottery forms.  There is a good explanation of how the roof tiles, called imbrex and tegula (plural imbrices and tegulae), worked.  A good memory for me – I dug up a lot of these tiles at my first ever dig in Silchester.  The arched imbrices, sit snugly over the upright edges of two facing tegula tiles, as shown in the above photograph, and the the triangular antefix tiles were placed to cover the ends of the imbrex.

Green-glazed ware found at Holt. Source: National Museum of Wales

Examples of the pottery found at the site are on display, with some really fine examples, including ollae (jars), urcei (jugs), lagenae (flagons), cattili (plates), calices (drinking bowls), and testa (lids).  I particularly liked a partly preserved ceramic colander and a mortarium (the latter working like a modern mortar, but with bits of stone embedded into the interior base of the pot to create a rough surface for grinding spices and seeds).  Green-glazed pottery, a luxury ware that I had never come across before, was also made at the site.  It is rare in Britain, so it was excellent to see examples of it on show.  A photograph of the green glazed pottery found at Holt (from the National Museum of Wales website) is shown below.

The workers also turned their hands to other types of objects made from clay – one cabinet shows a marvellous piece of shaped water pipe that was manufactured at the site.

Section of water pipe manufactured at Holt

All of the output manufactured at the works was sent by boat downriver to Chester, the exhibition suggests that a short may have been dug out at Holt in order to make loading the ceramics easier, its course marked today by annual floodwaters that, as they recede, leave a line of floodwater in what could well be a Roman channel.

Samian pottery found at Holt. Source: Grimes 1930

Interestingly, the exhibition shows that even though huge amounts of pottery was being made on-site, there were particularly favoured types of ceramic being imported.  Samian (terra sigillata), a truly gorgeous luxury dark red ware that has moulded decoration on its lustrous surfaces, was found in surprising quantities.  This was usually imported from south-eastern Gaul (France); a Roman experiment with samian production in southern England produced inferior pottery and was very short-lived.

Imported black-burnished ware was also found at Holt, which the exhibition explains was made in Dorset.  At sites in southern England it is common (we found bucket-loads of it at Silchester), but when found at northern sites, it was probably imported to fulfil a particular need or desire.  The works manager might have wanted high-status ceramics, and any soldiers at the site may have craved the comforts of home, but another option is that it was being imported for use by a nearby settlement.  One of the findings of the 2018 geophysical survey was the presence of a possible Roman fort or marching camp to the west of the site, suggesting that the site may have been on the edge of an unidentified vicus settlement, or village.

Coins on display in the exhibition.

The coins at the site are invaluable for their contribution to creating a timeline for development of the site, but are works of art in their own right.

The exhibition provides another insight into the inhabitants of the site by displaying some of the other objects they owned, like small pieces of jewellery made of bronze, manicure equipment, a beautifully crafted needle and a delectably delicate silver spoon.  These are objects that people chose and kept on them, intimate reminders that these were real people who lived complicated lives in which personal appearance had an important role.

Silver spoon from Holt on display at the exhibition. Source: Grimes 1930

A map at the end of the exhibition was riveting, showing how widespread Roman presence in northeast Wales actually was, showing everything from single find-sites to industrial sites like that at Holt, the settlements at Heronbridge and Plas Coch, and the villa at Rossett, the latter two sites both recent discoveries.  It looks as though there will be more Roman discoveries in the future, filling out a picture not merely about the activities of Romans in Britain, but on their interactions with local communities, something which remains poorly understood.

Museum details

The museum is an excellent resource, a small but modern with excellent displays and a lot of great information on professionally produced display boards into context. At the time of writing (August 2021) masks must be worn and you need to leave your name and telephone number with reception.  For opening days and times, plus directions, see the Wrexham County Borough website:
http://old.wrexham.gov.uk/english/heritage/wrexham_museum.htm

A booklet accompanying the exhibition is available both in the museum foyer and under the video screen in Gallery 3.  The cover and some of the pages from the booklet are shown at the top of the post, and full details are in Sources, below.   A leaflet, Holt: Legacy of the Legions, is also available from the museum, or can be downloaded.

It is a real shame that the Hidden Holt gallery is only a temporary feature, but Wrexham Museum has a lot more to see, and I will be posting about some its permanent displays in the future.

Sources:

Books and papers

Grimes, W.F. 1930.  Holt, Denbighshire:  Twentieth Legion at Castle Lyons.  Y Cymmrodor.  Society of Cymmrodorion.

Ward, M. 1998. A collection of samian from the legionary works-depot at Holt.  In (ed.) Bird, J. Form and Fabric.  Oxbow Monographs 80.
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/333155555_A_collection_of_samian_from_the_legionary_works-depot_at_Holt

Ward, M. 1998. Some finds from the Roman works-depot at Holt.  Studia Celtica 32:43-65
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/311789557_Some_finds_from_the_Roman_works-depot_at_Holt

Booklets / leaflets

Wrexham Heritage Service 2021.  Hidden Holt.  The Story of a Roman Site.  The Discovery of a Roman Legionary Tile and Pottery Works at Holt, near Wrexham.  (Booklet accompanying the exhibition in both English and Welsh)

Holt Castle Conservation and Interpretation Project.  Holt. Legacy of the Legions.  An introduction to the history of the Legionary Works Depot at Holt. (Leaflet, including site plan, available from the museum)
http://old.wrexham.gov.uk/assets/pdfs/heritage/holt_castle/holt_legacy.pdf

Websites

Hidden Holt
Wrexham Museum
https://www.wrexhamheritage.wales/?exhibition=hidden-holt-the-story-of-a-roman-site

Hidden Holt – Roman history revealed in a new Wrexham Museum exhibition
Wrexham Council News
https://news.wrexham.gov.uk/hidden-holt-roman-history-revealed-in-new-wrexham-museum-exhibition/

Holt Local History Society
https://holtlhs.weebly.com/

National Museum of Wales
https://museum.wales/

Roman Glazed Pottery from North Wales
National Museum of Wales
https://museum.wales/articles/1327/Roman-glazed-pottery-from-North-Wales/

The Pottery Kilns of Roman Britian by Vivien Swan (database)
https://romankilns.net/