The Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibition currently on display at ten sites across the northern frontier lured me up north for a short visit. As I didn’t have the time to get to all of the exhibition sites, I prioritized the expos in Newcastle and Carlisle at the Great North Museum: Hancock, at Arbeia Roman Fort & Museum, at Segedunum and at Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery.
I’ve previously written about the extreme coolness of Roman cavalry parade helmets, so this is a little bit of an extension of that, as well as just a general Roman cavalry parade helmet love-in.
First up, Arbeia.
Arbeia Roman Fort, situated at a strategic point on the River Tyne was founded in about 120CE and was occupied right up until the end of the Roman period in Britain. Throughout this long life-span, the fort served as a base for (among others) auxiliary units of cavalry from Spain, the First Asturian, and boatmen from Mesopotamia. It was converted into a supply station in the Severan period, handling the import of commodities destined for troops in the military zone.
At Arbeia Roman Fort, the Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibition, ‘Uncovering cavalry‘ is more about highlighting objects in the existing collection with just a couple of additions of objects on loan. This iron cavalry helmet from Limesmuseum Aalen is known as an ‘Alexander’ type due to its resemblance to portraits of Alexander the Great from around the same period, CE150-250.
Many surviving cavalry helmets are made from copper-alloy, sometimes coated in silver, but far fewer iron helmets have been found as they are more prone to corrosion. This helmet was found in a scrap metal dump near the workshops of Aalen cavalry fort.
A quick hop over the Tyne on the ferry took me to Segedunum. The larger exhibition there, ‘Rome’s elite troops – building Hadrian’s cavalry’, looks at the make up of the cavalry units and some of the manoeuvres used by cavalry units in battle.
Segedunum Roman Fort was built in about 127CE, when Hadrian’s Wall, originally starting at Pons Aelius (Newcastle upon Tyne) in 122AD, was subsequently extended by four miles to the east, to Wallsend. The fort was home to mixed cavalry-infantry units including the Second Cohort of Nervians in the 2nd century and, in the 3rd and 4th centuries the Fourth Cohort of the Lingones.
Alongside objects from Segedunum’s own collection are several helmets and helmet cheek-pieces on loan. One unusual helmet from Musée d’Art Classique de Mougins is this double-eagle crested helmet, a type worn by members of the Imperial Horse Guard in the third century.
Also in the exhibition is this silvered shield boss on loan from a private collection in the UK. The boss shows significant damage, probably sustained in battle during the Dacian Wars.
The boss is decorated with incised images of mythological subjects; Mars, Medusa, Jupiter, Apollo and Hercules. The outer part is decorated with images related to battle; shields, winged Victories, armour and a helmet.
There are two inscriptions on the boss; at the top, a statement of the ownership of the shield by Marcus Ulpius, a member of the Imperial Horse Guard in the time of the Emperor Trajan, and at the bottom, a record of the donation of the shield boss as an offering by Flavius Volussinus in memory of Marcus Ulpius.
Back in town, I went off to Newcastle’s Great North Museum: Hancock to see two helmets of a particular type. The display there, ‘Hadrian’s Cavalry: Shock and awe – the power of the Roman cavalryman’s mask’ shows the Ribchester Helmet (on loan from The British Museum) together with a second helmet of the same type (on loan from a private collection).
The Ribchester Helmet was found in Lancashire in 1796, as part of the Ribchester Hoard. It’s a bronze ceremonial helmet with a distinctive peak. The second helmet has been dated to roughly the same period as the Ribchester Helmet; 70-110CE/75-125CE.
Also at the GNM is Mithras.
The museum is home to a brilliant collection of Mithraic images and objects collected from sites along and around Hadrian’s Wall. Alongside more familiar mithraic imagery of the Tauroctony and the companions of Mithras, Cautes and Cautopates, this collection also includes this amazing carved stone sculpture of the birth of Mithras, with the god emerging from the Cosmic Egg.
Added to this, until 27th August, are three objects on loan from the collection at the Museum of London. The three marble busts were found buried under the floor level of the Mithraeum at Bucklesbury. They are a marble head of Minerva, the head of Serapis and the head of Mithras himself.
This is such a great idea. Bringing together the two best Mithras collections in the country. It’s also a good opportunity to have a bit of look at Mithraeism in two different environments; the Mithraeums up on Hadrian’s Wall were in a military zone and associated with forts; e.g. Housesteads/Vercovicium and Carrawburgh/Brocolitia, while the London mithraeum was in civilian, urban area. The accompanying film also looks at the discovery of the London mithraeum in the 1950s.
A swift trundle west to Carlisle brought me to Tullie House Museum for the Guardians on the edge of empire – cavalry bases and Roman power exhibition, and more helmets. This is the largest of the exhibitions that I visited and there were some fantastic objects on display.
The fort at Carlisle, Stanwix/Uxelodunum, is thought to have housed cavalry troops, most the Ala Petriana. Home to a thousand mounted troops and their horses and support staff. This unit’s exceptional service earned them Roman citizenship while still serving. This is the unit in which Flavinus the signifer whose memorial now stands in Hexham Abbey, served, albeit at an earlier date.
The exhibition focuses, again, on the role and organization of the cavalry on the frontier and has an impressive range of helmets, face masks and other armoury pieces on display.
There are some pretty showy pieces, including this 2nd-3rdc. CE ‘Ostrov’ type helmet from Musée d’Art Classique de Mougins.
The helmet is a shape similar of one found in a burial at Ostrov, Romania and has a distinctive Phrygian cap shape on the upper part, topped with the head of a griffin and covered in scales.
The Gallery Attendant on duty when I visited was also very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the exhibition, and I had several conversations with her while I was looking round. She was particularly interested in this 3rdc. CE Amazon face mask (from Archäologische Staatssammlung München) and wondered about its origins and possible influences on the styling.
It really has a strong eastern look, reflecting the exoticism of the Amazon warriors. But comparing it with the second Amazon face mask in the exhibition (mid-2nd – mid-3rdc. CE, from Archäologisches Landesmuseum Baden-Württemberg) just shows up how exotic this one really looks.
This 1stc. CE ‘kalkreise’ type face mask (below), on loan from a private collection, is interesting as it has markings on the cheeks. As Imperial cavalry forces were usually auxiliary, i.e.non-citizen, units raised in provinces incorporated into the empire, these could have been indicative of tribal tattoos.
It’s really interesting to see the number of helmets and masks, and other pieces of armour, on display that are from private collections. This makes these displays even more worth seeing while they’re on, as there’s no telling whether they’ll be displayed in public again.
So there you are. A little peek at a few of the Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibitions. It would have been nice to have been able to do all ten as a road trip but I only had time for a flying visit. And I should also just point out that these exhibitions are in addition to the already excellent Roman collections at the museums and sites in question. Of course, on the back of seeing these exhibitions and displays, I’m now going to have to get down to Mougins to visit the museum there, and it has encouraged me to add more of Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium to the (never-ending) list.
The Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibition continues until 10th September at ten sites along Hadrian’s Wall and down the western coast as far as Maryport.