Towards a New Volume of The Roman Inscriptions of Britain

Epigraphically challenged. This cruel euphemism has been applied to Roman Britain, where the discovery of a stone inscription is something of an event. It was a 'red-letter day' for the young (Sir) Ian Richmond, later the first Professor of the Archaeology of the Roman Empire at Oxford, when in 1929 he helped uncover two inscribed slabs at Birdoswald on Hadrian's Wall. In the four centuries since Camden's northern tour in 1599, the total of discoveries has not yet reached 3,000: perhaps one-hundredth of the Roman total, from a province which was garrisoned by one-tenth of the army. (This reproachful reference to the legions and their auxiliaries is not unfair. The distribution of Roman inscriptions in Britain is overwhelmingly military, from the epitaphs of soldiers at Colchester, London, Lincoln and Bath, to the copious epigraphy of the three legionary bases at Caerleon, Chester and York, and above all, the stones of the two Walls). But there are two compensations for this epigraphic poverty: the wealth of ink-written wooden tablets from Vindolanda (the Roman army again), and the loving attention lavished by British scholars upon stone inscriptions when they do appear. True, the first British collections in Camden's Britannia and Horsley's Britannia Romana were superseded by the work of an imperial propraetorian legate sent out by Mommsen and the Berlin Academy. This was Emil Hübner, who edited CIL VII (1873), but meanwhile J. Collingwood Bruce, M.A. (Glasgow) and a native of the province, was collecting the northern inscriptions in his Lapidarium Septentrionale (1870-75).

Supplements to CIL VII were published by F.J. Haverfield, Student of Christ Church and later Camden Professor of Ancient History at Oxford. He published the first annual survey of new inscriptions in 1914, and intended the task of preparing a new corpus for his favourite pupil, G.L. Cheesman of New College, who is rightly remembered for The Auxilia of the Roman Imperial Army (1914). Ominous dates, these. When Cheesman was killed at Gallipoli, the loss is said to have broken Haverfield's heart. After his own death in 1919, the task devolved upon a famous Oxford philosopher and historian, R.G. Collingwood. In 1921 he announced that he was collecting 'a new Corpus of Roman inscriptions in Britain', and published the latest discoveries in that year's Journal of Roman Studies; it was the first of the annual surveys which have continued unbroken until the present day. Before his own premature death in 1943, Collingwood 'made drawings of all the important Roman inscriptions in Britain', his obituarist says with some exaggeration, but the first of a crippling series of strokes in 1938 forced him to choose a junior editor. This was a Cambridge classicist, R.P. Wright, the new Lecturer in Roman History at Durham. With proper pietas he put Collingwood's name before his own on the title-page of RIB, but his contribution was by far the greater. Without a motor car (his correspondence is full of the complicated expedients this forced upon him), he inspected almost every inscription. Every page of RIB bears witness to his dogged energy, his obsessive accuracy and minute attention to detail, all the harmless drudgery required of a great epigrapher. His work was finished in 1960, but the printing took another five years, prompting the Clarendon Press to alter the date of his Preface from 11 November 1960 to 1964, an object-lesson to us all of how far to trust the accuracy of transmitted dates in public documents.

RIB contains 2,400 monumental inscriptions. Its cut-off date is 31 December 1954, so that when it was published in 1965, there were already ten years of 'new' inscriptions. 35 years later, with the Millennium at our backs hurrying near, they total almost 500. During the past 45 years, stones have been found high in the air - in the roofs of York Minster and Gloucester Cathedral - and deep underground, like the Roman milestone in a 12-metre well at Caves Inn illustrated below. An altar inscribed to the goddess Sulis by a soothsayer was found actually still in place within her precinct at Bath, like an altar to the Nymphs at Carrawburgh on Hadrian's Wall, but usually nice squared lumps of stone are re-used in churches, pavements, houses, farm-buildings and field walls. They mostly turn up in archaeological excavations, but one centurial stone was found by a sharp-eyed bookseller, and half a tombstone from the Catterick excavations was 'salvaged' by a local farmer during Bank Holiday. There is a famous photograph of Collingwood himself standing on one of those Birdoswald slabs, unaware that it was inscribed; and another story, also authentic, that a more recent archaeologist turned over a huge stone and was so surprised to find it was inscribed that he dropped it on his foot. (This cushioned the shock for the inscription, which was unharmed, but it broke his foot.) Another archaeologist reported a small inscription as 'unstratified', which meant that someone found it on his spoil heap. All these interesting inscriptions, and more than four hundred others, have found interim publication year by year, at first in JRS by Richard Wright, and then by his joint successors, Mark Hassall and Roger Tomlin, in Britannia.

Caves Inn
Caves Inn (Warwickshire), 1963. Mindful of the site's name, members of the Rugby Archaeological Society cautiously excavate a Roman well. It contained a milestone of Constantine which will be published in RIB III.

Haverfield left his books to the Oxford library which bears his name, and wished the Romano-British epigraphic corpus to be a charge on his estate. So the Administrators of his Bequest have supported the publication of new inscriptions from Britain, first annually and then in successive volumes of RIB. Sheppard Frere, who succeeded Richmond at Oxford, and Tomlin have now published in the eight fascicules of RIB II (1990-95) what epigraphers quaintly call Instrumentum Domesticum. This does not include 'curse tablets' on lead which, like the inscrutable stilus tablets, await a corpus of their own. But meanwhile, to bring the stone inscriptions up to the Millennium, the Administrators of the Haverfield Bequest have appointed Tomlin to edit RIB III. They have also appointed a full-time research assistant for 1999, Dr. Ralph Häussler, who graduated in Ancient History, Roman and Classical Archaeology at the Goethe-University, Frankfurt, and thus brings hybrid vigour to an Oxford-based enterprise. More to the point, he wrote his doctoral thesis at University College, London, on the Romanization of a region far richer in municipal inscriptions than Britain; and even more to the point, with his German diploma in computing science, he feels a kindly, knowing contempt for all those idiosyncrasies of Word 98 which cause his senior colleague such inarticulate unease tempered by fury.

This team has already scanned electronically the texts published in JRS and Britannia, weeding out many a typo of the 'Aurc[ius' variety, and ordering the result into the skeleton of RIB III. This will then be fleshed out from the archive contained in the meticulous notebooks and card index kept by Wright, and in the files, the looser-limbed files let us call them, of Hassall and Tomlin. Hundreds of preliminary drawings must be checked and fair-copied (a tedious job), drawings prepared by the Collingwood method, where the artist stretches his paper tightly across the stone and catches the edges of the letters with crayon or cobbler's wax. The method is surprisingly objective, especially if monitored against a squeeze. Other drawings have been made from squeezes in reverse, or by draughtsmen attached to museums and archaeological units. Collingwood and Wright were pioneers in illustrating every possible inscription with a line-drawing, a decision they owed to Haverfield, which has enabled users of RIB to refine and improve its readings. They would surely have approved the decision to reinforce the line-drawings in RIB III with photographs wherever possible.

RIB III cannot simply be compiled from published sources. Many inscriptions still need to be photographed, they all need commentary and indexing, and ideally should be checked by autopsy. There are problems of authenticity, such as the altar from Bath which can be traced through several pairs of hands, which legend says the first vendor carved from a stone in his mother's garden at Bradford-on-Avon; and another altar in a Sussex collection, which was sold years later with an acquired north-country provenance, an altar which happens to be the twin of one from Rome. Field-work is needed, for example at the Wall east of Birdoswald, where centurial stones have been recorded from three different base-points in both directions; but fortunately there is a comfortable bed-and-breakfast across the fields, and stone-by-stone drawings available from the Central Excavation Unit. And what about the coal mine in county Durham, named after the adjoining Roman fort which it quarried for building-stone? Old miners remember seeing 'written stones' through the bars of the cage as they whizzed up and down. That colliery is now derelict - fair enough - but its workings have become a sump for other collieries. The Caves Inn well is a puddle by comparison; those Durham inscriptions, if they really exist, are now hundreds of feet underwater. The editor will just have to hold his breath.

Roger Tomlin Wolfson College

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Created on Sunday, 24 October, 1999: 19:38:13