Category Archives: Museums and galleries

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 Dinysia/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 a a small sample 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/

 

 

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/