The latest online talk from the Yorkshire Museum’s Ryedale Hoard series is so good I was rapt the whole time. (Actual footage.) →
Entitled Metals, Making and Magic: The Smith in Roman Britain, the talk was delivered by Dr. Owen Humphreys of the Museum of London Archaeology, an expert in Roman ironwork. He opens with a bang by summarizing the enormous differences in metalworking production between Iron Age Britain (even after contact with the Empire was well-established) and Roman Britain. Despite the name of the era, very few iron nails have been found at Iron Age British sites, whereas Roman archaeological sites even from the earliest years of the conquest is full of metal.
The title of this post is a reference to one salient example: The Roman legionary fortress of Inchtuthil in Scotland was built in 82/3 A.D. to garrison troops for Roman governor Gnaeus Julius Agricola’s invasion of Scotland. He was recalled by Emperor Domitian in 85 A.D. and the fort was abandoned less than two years later. The buildings were dismantled and all of the iron nails removed and buried in a large pit. When archaeologists excavated the site in the early 1950s, they found seven tons of iron nails in that pit. Seven tons of nails. More than 875,000 of them. (Plus another three tons of assorted iron objects.) Granted, Inchtuthil was a big fort with barracks, a hospital building, a workshop and other buildings, but it’s a startling example of the scale of Roman metalwork only 40 years after the conquest.
Humphreys then delves into the craft itself — its cultural depictions, tools, differences between Roman smithing and local techniques. If you watch nothing else, watch the Humphrey’s explanation of the lost wax method of casting bronze starting 40 minutes in. He uses the bust of Marcus Aurelius from the Ryedale Hoard as a model to illustrate how the process worked. It’s probably the clearest brief explanation of the technique I’ve ever seen. Also extra points for listing Pliny’s recipes for bronze, different depending on what was being made with it.
3 thoughts on “Seven tons of iron nails in one fort!”
I first heard about about 30 years ago. It’s always stuck with me. We were told that they were buried to keep the resource away from the locals after the Romans had gone. Must have had to use a lot of camouflage to hide a pit holding so much iron. Was it just too much effort to move them? Did the Romans have free access to so much iron that 7 tons was inconsequential? Or was it buried in the assumption that they’d be back soon and they’d getvuse of them before they were affected by being in the ground?
SEVEN TONS of unused material? For over 2000 years?!? 😮
Did they bring it over from the Continent? Was this locally mined and/ or “collected” from the locals? (De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae from 98AD: “Fert Britannia … alia metalla, pretium victoriae”).
As far as the Continent would be concerned…
The Roman poet Ovid on the proverbial hardness of ‘Noric steel’ –a steel from Noricum, a Celtic kingdom located in modern Austria and Slovenia– in his “Metamorphoses” (Bk. 14, 711-715): “..harder than iron tempered by Noric fire (“durior et ferro, quod Noricus excoquit ignis”) [was Anaxarete towards Iphis..]”.
The iron ore was quarried at two mountains in modern Austria still called Erzberg “ore mountain” today, one at Hüttenberg, Carinthia and the other at Eisenerz, Styria. A center of manufacture and trade was at Magdalensberg.
A spectacular find from Magdalensberg was made as early as 1502: A life-size statue of a young man, made of bronze, a.k.a. the “Youth of Magdalensberg”, 185cm/ 6’1″. However, what today is left of it turned out to be an early Renaissance copy of an original Roman copy of the Greek original, both of which had gone lost.
An inscription is incised on the Youth’s right thigh:
“A[ulus] Poblicius D[ecimi] l[ibertus] Antio[cus] Ti[berius] Barbius Q[uinti] P[ublii] l[ibertus] Tiberinus / (Aulus Poblicus Antiochus, freedman of Decimus; Tiberius Barbius Tiberinus, freedman of Quintus Publius), obviously a dedication by two freedmen active in the trade.
As a blacksmith I found the talk VERY interesting. Many of the tools and techniques used in the various metal crafts are still in use today.
There is even a touch of the magic left. I have been demonstrating and some folk are purely amazed at the process and can’t get their heads around how it is done. In our electonic world where so much is done with pressing a button or touching a screen creating something by hand is very unusual and beyond most people.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistiguishable from magic.” -Arthur C. Clarke