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Excavation of Roman Armour from Caerleon

Penny Hill, 15 November 2011

The large block of armour was initially far too heavy to lift in one piece, so we had to split it into three. Julia has been working on the largest section (see previous blog) and I’m now excavating one of the smaller blocks.

At first glance this second block contains a number of interesting objects. A piece of bronze sheet with a cast head, a plain bronze disc, scale armour, a selection of iron objects (not yet identified) and something composed of rows of overlapping flat headed pins, similar in appearance to drawing pins. At this stage it’s difficult to tell if these objects are associated or not.

The most striking object in the block is the cluster of overlapping disc headed pins that have been laid down in rows and imitate scale. When new and brightly polished the copper alloy discs would have shimmered and caught the light. They are now very fragile, little metal remains and their shape is preserved by the green copper corrosion products. Retrieval and conservation is going to be fun and probably age me about 10 years!

The pins were once attached to a backing, probably made of leather which would have been flexible and allowed movement. This has now perished, leaving a black stain in the soil. I’ve kept samples so we can have a closer look at this later. However, the thickness of the backing material can be established by measuring the distance between the head and the bend in the pin.

Now the backing has gone, the soil is the only thing keeping the pins together. It’s going to be a challenge lifting them and preserving the pins original association. This is vital though as it might help identify this mysterious object .

In a time before modern mechanisation it is hard to work out how the Romans managed to make such small and perfectly formed little pins. A closer look down the microscope reveals interesting manufacturing marks but doesn’t really help with the intriguing question, how did they make them? On closer inspection different types of pins have been used, some are domed, some flat and there are also slightly larger studs, which may indicate that the pins were possibly laid in a pattern. I've put a few pictures up just in case anyone has seen an object like this before or fancies a challenge and work out how these little disc headed pins could have been made?

Penny Hill

Preventive Conservator, Historic Buildings


Matt Lukes
21 December 2013, 17:21
These are brilliant- thanks for posting them Penny. I'm an ancient arms and armour recreation artisan professionally, specializing in Roman and Greek material, and it's clear to me the pins were forged, just as regular nails or hobnails would be; the underside of most clearly shows the design of the heading tool used. And the square or somewhat 'faceted' nature of the shanks is also typical of hammered nails, and the short 'collar' on the one type with the raised lines on the underside is a typical effect if the nail blank's shank is slightly smaller than the heading tools aperture- the first hammerblow drives it further in and the new nail has a short section that is the exact shape of the tool's aperture.
Rebecca Smith
8 October 2012, 21:00
Hi there, I was part of the team excavating in Caerleon when the armour was found. My father is an engineer and has worked forging metal (brass) for 20 years.

He told me from seeing a picture, "As they are only a centimetre across I would have thought they would have been forged {coined whilst hot). They knew how to forge coins with a die so it wouldn
Claudia L
4 December 2011, 18:49
Hello :)
Are there any suggestions about the dating of the armour?
Penny Hill Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales Staff
29 November 2011, 11:23
Hi Moi. At the moment I can't find any evidence that the pins were cast, but it can't be ruled out at this stage. There are stress cracks on some that radiate from the outer edge inwards, which I've seen on coins that have been struck between dies. So the head of the pin looks like it may have been struck, but how or when the pin was attached is still unclear. I've got a feeling we will have to look at later production methods to give us a clue, but I'll be interested to hear if anyone has any ideas!
Penny Hill Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales Staff
29 November 2011, 10:11
Hi Chris. I haven't seen any woven structure in the material Iooked at so far, it appears very random and fibrous. We'll have a look at a sample under the scanning electron microscope and if it's textile we should be able to see the weave hopefully. As soon as we do this I'll pop the images up on the blog, although if there are any taken down the microscope that look interesting I'll pop them on the blog as well.
Moi Watson
22 November 2011, 18:42
Thank you SO much for the update on this very important find.

Off to speak t my metal smith tutor!!!
22 November 2011, 16:37
Could it also have been a densely woven textile backing like on the finds from Dura Europos? Any hints?
Good work! :-)
'Medicus' Matt Bunker
22 November 2011, 15:42
You ask how they were made. Is there anything to indicate that they weren't just cast?
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