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Bill Thayer

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IN a former paper in the Intellectual Observer I gave an account of the discoveries made, during the autumn of 1861, in excavations in a field which occupied part of the site of the cemetery of the Roman city of Uriconium, at Wroxeter, near Shrewsbury. Since that time, a field adjoining, which occupies a portion of the same cemetery, has been the scene of excavations, and, although but partially examined, it has been no less productive than the other in interesting discoveries. Among the objects brought to light on this occasion are a rather considerable number of sepulchral urns and other vessels in earthenware and glass, with various objects of a more miscellaneous character, among which one of the most remarkable is a Roman surgeon's lancet, an article I believe to be unique in Roman antiquities, certainly among those found in Britain. The discovery of such an instrument, under these circumstances, rather naturally draws our attention to the more general subject of the professions and trades practised in the towns of Britain during the Roman period — a subject of the more importance because they were probably the origin of the professions and trades of our mediæval period, and through them, in some measure, of those of modern times. What were the  p11 trades and professions exercised in the great Roman city of Uriconium, and under what form were they carried on?

It is evident that in the circumstances generally attending the Roman remains found in our island, discoveries such as I have just alluded to must be extremely rare, and it is only in the almost undisturbed ruins of a great city, like Uriconium, that we can hope to meet with anything which is authentic to our purpose, that is, which belongs to professional or industrial occupations exercised on the spot. We meet with abundance of manufactured articles, but there are no circumstances connected with them to enable us to say where, or by whom, they were manufactured. Although the buildings which we have been chiefly exploring within the ancient town of Uriconium were of a public character, and not likely to yield us much information of this sort, yet enough has been found, even in the very small space yet excavated, to show that we may hope, as we proceed further, to make discoveries which will throw great light on this subject, and, indeed, on the whole internal economy of a great Roman town in Britain, in the beginning of the fifth century. Meanwhile it will, perhaps, not be uninteresting if I give here a brief and collective account of the objects already discovered, which belong to professions or industrial callings exercised in ancient Uriconium. And first let us speak of the lancet just mentioned.

We seem to know but little of the surgical practice, or of the use of the lancet, among the Romans, but we learn from Celsus that the name by which this instrument was known was scalpellus, or, sometimes, scalper and scalprum, words which mean simply a small cutting instrument; while, at a rather later period, Isidore of Seville gives it its Greek name phlebotomum (φλεβότομον), which expresses its more especial use in letting blood by making an incision in the vein.b The scalpellus, or lancet, represented in the cut annexed, was found in the recent excavations in the cemetery of Uriconium, and had, no doubt, been deposited in the grave of the surgeon who had used it; but it is uncertain whether it was placed in his sepulchral urn with his ashes, or beside it, for the latter was broken, and its contents scattered about before they were noticed by the workman. Along with the lancet were found a small lock and some beads, with other remains, from which it appeared that these, and probably the lancet also, had been inclosed in a box or casket, no doubt of wood, which, of course, had perished, but it had been considered of sufficient importance to be locked. The handle of the lancet, which is in the form of a narrow oval loop, is made of bronze, and has at the far end from the blade a small projection, from which something has been broken, probably a knob. A small disc forms a sort of guard to the  p12 blade, which latter is of steel, and still so sharp that a very distinguished surgeon of modern Shrewsbury tells me that he thinks he could almost perform an operation with it in its present state. The lancet has been contained in a wooden case or sheath, lined internally with leather; and the more considerable fragments of the wood, which is rather coarsely grained, and leather lining of this sheath, are represented in our cut.

[image ALT: zzz. It is zzz found in 19c excavations of Viroconium, a Roman town near Wroxeter, England.]

Thus it is evident that there were in Uriconium surgeons who, whatever may have been their skill in operating, had, at least, perfectly good instruments for the purpose. It is not improbable that, as in the middle ages, so in the Roman towns, the practice of the surgeon, or chirurgus (χειρουργὸς, the man who operated with his hand), was entirely distinct from that of the physician, or medicus. We have, also, in the Wroxeter Museum at Shrewsbury, a very curious memorial of the medical  p13 practice in ancient Uriconium. It is one of what are usually called Roman oculists' stamps, consisting of an inscription engraved on a neatly formed round slab of whitish stone, rather more than an inch in diameter, intended, of course, for impressing the names of the medicine and its maker on the pot, box, or parcel containing the former. Our inscription may be read as follows:—


Tiberii Claudii medici
ad om
ne vitium
oculorum ex ovo

It may be translated, "The dialibanumc of Tiberius Claudius, the physician, for all complaints of the eyes, to be used with egg." This object belongs to a class of Roman antiquities which are my no means uncommon. More than half a dozen have been found in Britain, and a greater number have been met with in Gaul and Germany. Of those found in England, the localities of the discovery of five only are known, and, curiously enough, these are all on the western side of England, on the sites of the town of Uriconium (Wroxeter), Magna (Kenchester), Glevum (Gloucester), Corinium (Cirencester), and Aquæ Solis (Bath). It is also remarkable that all these stamps yet known are for ointments and other medicines for diseases of the eyes; and we seem thus justified in assuming that diseases of the eyes were very prevalent among the population of Western Europe under the Roman empire. We have not a sufficient knowledge of the sanitary condition of society at that time to enable us to state why this was the case. Most of these stamps are engraved on small parallelograms of stone, and occupy the edges, so that there are from two to four different inscriptions, for so many different medicines made by the same physician, all for eye-diseases, and all expressed in much the same formula. Thus, the example found in our nearest neighbouring Roman town, where they occurred, Kenchester, has four inscriptions, and that found at Cirencester two. One of the inscriptions of the Cirencester stamp may be given as an example. It is in two lines, and may be read, —


Minervalis dialeb
anum ad impetum lippitudinis, ex ovo.

"The dialebanum of Minervalis against lippitudo,d to be used with egg." Of all these stamps yet found, no two bear the same name, from which we are justified in considering that the names are those of the local practitioners to whom each belonged. The specific of Minervalis, as it will be seen, was a similar ointment to that sold by Tiberius Claudius, the physician of Uriconium. The dialebanum was a well-known ointment for  p14 the eyes, made originally of a vegetable substance, said to have been procured in its greatest purity from Arabia; but no doubt these local doctors used other substances in its place, and probably each pretended to greater perfection than his neighbours.c In the Cirencester inscription, as in that found in Wroxeter, it is directed to be used ex ovo, or to be applied beaten up with egg. It has been supposed that these stamps belonged to oculists only, but the presence of the term medicus can leave no doubt that the individual to whom our stamp belonged, Tiberius Claudius, was a general physician of Uriconium.

Neither of these curious monuments of the civilization of a far‑gone past, the lancet or the medicine stamp, give us any room even for a conjecture as to the part of the city of Uriconium in which the surgeon or the physician dwelt, the manner in which he exercised his profession, the social position which he held, or even the exact period at which he lived; but this is not quite the case with the objects to which the attention of our readers is next called, and which belong to a profession of an entirely different character. It may be necessary, in explanation of this discovery, to state briefly that the principal buildings we have been laying open at Wroxeter consist of the Basilica or municipal hall, an extensive edifice running east and west, and opening in the latter direction upon the forum; the public baths, attached to the basilica on its southern side; and a long block of buildings between the baths and the forum. Among the last-mentioned buildings, and not far from the same spot, were found, at different times, three small rectangular slabs of a whitish stone, apparently steatite or soap-stone, which had been carefully smoothed, the one side presenting a perfectly level surface, but the other bevelled off at the edges. They are nearly of the same size, about two inches and a-half broad by two inches and three-quarters long, and not quite half an inch thick. A very slight examination was enough to show that these were painters' palettes. They are represented in our cut, in which it will be seen that the one to the right is very much worn in the middle of the upper or unbevelled side by the action of the painter rubbing his colours, and, indeed, traces of the colours may still be perceived. This pallette had been accidentally broken, and the fractures as here shown will give a better notion of the form of the pallette, and of the character of the wearing, than any description. We have every reason to believe, from the locality in which these objects were found, that there was a painter's shop, or studio, somewhere between the baths and the forum, so that the fine arts, perhaps, flourished in Uriconium. But one of these palettes furnishes us with another fact of some interest connected with this subject. On  p15 the back of this pallette, which is turned towards us in the engraving, and which has been less used than the one just described, we find, among several scratches made intentionally with a sharp instrument, a man's name, rudely but minutely written in a small tablet, evidently an imitation of the forms in which the potters' names are stamped on the red Samian ware. No similar inscription is found on the other pallettes, and, from the manner in which it has been executed, we are fairly justified in supposing that it is the name, not of the maker of the pallettes, but of the possessor of this particular example, and probably of the others also. From the careless manner in which this inscription is written, it is not very easy to decipher, but it appears to be DICINIVMA, which may be read as Dicinivi manu, by the hand of Dicinivus. Thus we have, in all probability, the name of a professional artist of Uriconium, who flourished at the time when the town was destroyed, and which, certainly not Roman, would apparently show him to be either a Gaul or a German. All this is extremely important in its relation to the history of art, one of the most valuable measures of social refinement at this very interesting period. Our knowledge of the forms of the practice of art among the Romans is in some respects defective, although they appear in general to have resembled very closely those in use at the present day. We do not even know nay distinctive name for the pallette, except the word assula, which means simply, like pallette itself, a thin slice or chip of stone, or other material. Wall pictures have been met with in Pompeii, in which the painter is represented at his work. In  p16 one of these, which is a burlesque or caricature, the painter, seated before a very modern-looking easel, has a tablet of stone, supported on four legs, as a large pallette, on which he can spread a number of colours at the same time; but in another painting, which represents a female artist making a drawing of a statue of the bearded Bacchus, the lady holds in her left hand a real pallette, only differing from those I have just described in being oval instead of rectangular.

[image ALT: zzz. It is zzz found in 19c excavations of Viroconium, a Roman town near Wroxeter, England.]

We have thus already discovered interesting memorials of the existence, in Uriconium, of an important branch of science, and of an equally important art — the healing science in its two branches of medicine and surgery, and painting; and we have brought to light the names of a physician and painter, who lived, and no doubt flourished, in the Roman city. We must now descend to a profession which may perhaps be described as of a less elevated character, though I am not sure that it also did not belong to a high degree of art. Moreover, it is a case in which we can identify the spot on which the art was practised. We opened a large, square room, of about thirty-eight feet by forty, a little to the south of the Basilica, and adjoining westward to the forum, which proved to be the workshop of an artificer in metals.

[image ALT: zzz. It is zzz found in 19c excavations of Viroconium, a Roman town near Wroxeter, England.]

Towards the north-eastern corner of this room stood a pile in the form of a sugar-loaf, about six feet high, built very roughly of clay, mixed with stones and other unprepared materials, among which were several lumps of unburnt mineral coal, which prove that that substance was sufficiently abundant in Roman Uriconium. On the eastern side of this structure, near the top, was a small furnace, in which there had been a fire so intensely hot that the whole internal surface was vitrified to some depth. From the form and position  p17 of this little furnace, it is quite evident that it must have been heated by a powerful blast, no doubt of bellows, which, with their machinery, have long disappeared. By the side of this furnace, towards the interior of the room, stands upright a rudely-formed cylindrical stone, resembling the stump of a column, which was evidently used, in some way or other, for working metals which were melted or rendered malleable in the furnace adjacent. The form and position of these objects are shown in our cut; and another cut will enable me to illustrate, if not satisfactorily explain them. We find in engraved gems, and in other works of ancient art, rather numerous pictures of the forge of Vulcan, and of other scenes of a similar description, in which are represented both the furnace and the anvil. The first of those here represented, that to the right, is taken from a sepulchral marble at Rome; the second, which represents Vulcan forging the thunderbolts for Jupiter, is furnished by a gem in the Cabinet Royal at Paris;e and the third is taken from another engraved gem. I might easily add other examples, but it will be sufficient to remark that the form of the stand of the anvil is invariably the same — a short cylindrical stone, or stump of a column. On comparing these with the object in our room at Wroxeter, and considering its position, we can hardly hesitate in considering the latter to have been the support of an anvil. Now it happens, curiously, that in clearing the ruins of some of the buildings at but a short distance from this spot, a large lump of iron was found which had evidently been exposed to the action of fire, and from that cause, and the effects of decomposition, presented no very intelligible form. It lay upon a low remnant of a broken wall, as though it had been dropped there, and had evidently been carried away from its proper place. But, when examined a little more carefully, this lump of iron presents very evident appearances of having formed an anvil; and I feel convinced that it was  p18 the anvil which once stood on the cylindrical block of stone before described, which would then still more exactly resemble the figures I have given from the ancient gems. Some one, probably at the time when people were breaking up the ruins to carry them off as building materials, seized upon this piece of iron, and would have carried it away also; but, finding it heavier than was convenient, he let it drop in this spot, and it was left there.

[image ALT: zzz. It is zzz found in 19c excavations of Viroconium, a Roman town near Wroxeter, England.]

The smallness of the furnace is enough to convince us that the metal-works made on this anvil were not on a large scale; and there are other circumstances connected with the room itself which require consideration. Its front, bordering upon the forum, appears to have been open to the street, like the shop of a modern coach-builder, in two openings, separated by a pier of masonry, and no doubt capable of being closed with woodwork. The sides, indeed, are grooved for this purpose. On this side of the room, internally, there was a smooth floor of cement, nearly level with the sill of the entrance opening, and extending not quite to the middle of the room. Beyond this there is a floor at a much lower level, formed entirely of a very fine sand, which has been brought from a distance, and placed to a considerable thickness upon the natural soil of the spot. The only use we can easily imagine for this sand would be to form moulds for casting, and various other circumstances seem to show that this was in fact a workshop for the fabrication of small objects in metal. A considerable quantity of the scoriæ from molten metals were found scattered about here, both within the room and outside; and many fragments of worked metal, with about a dozen bronze hair-pins, a large bronze fibula, and various other objects, were picked up in the room. The floor of sand had been supported on the northern side by a low wall, between which and the northern wall of the room there had been a kind of pit, in which were found many pieces of scoriæ, and other apparent articles of refuse. On one side of the room, upon the sand, was found a quantity of pounded granite, which, I am told, might be used for the purpose of enamelling; and many fragments of fine glass were also scattered about. The occupants of this shop appear to have left it hastily, when the town was taken by the barbarians; for one of them, as he passed over the sill of the front opening into the street, dropped his money, which had been kept in a small earthen vessel, which he may perhaps have returned to his shop to fetch, when he was surprised by the plunderers as he was leaving. The little pot was found on the sill, near its northern end, at the spot shown in our cut of the furnace and anvil-stand, broken, and the money lying a little scattered about it. Among the latter was  p19 found a small thin disc of metal, which had no doubt been intended for a button or stud; its face very prettily ornamented, not exactly in enamel, but in work more resembling what is called "niello," or work not much unlike damaskeening. With it were also found some fragments of small globular ornaments, of such delicate make that they were too much broken to pieces to allow us to judge satisfactorily of the real character of the object to which they belonged. The stud, or button, had evidently, when dropped in the place where it was found, been fresh from the hand of the maker, and there is nothing opposed to the supposition that it was made in the workshop I have been describing, and which, therefore, may be assumed to have been that of a manufacturer of ornaments and small objects in metal, including, perhaps, the practise of the art of enamelling. It must be stated further that, on the higher floor of cement, near the south-western corner, there are the remains of another furnace, which was built of masonry, and heated by means of a flue; and that in the middle of the room there is a square mass of rather rough masonry, with a level surface about the height of the floor, which has either been intended to support some heavy object, or possibly to serve as a work-table. This mass of masonry is shown in the front of our cut, given above, with the high floor to the left of it, and the lower floor of sand before it and to the right.

The existence of this workshop, and the manufacture of enamels and niello in it (if the conjecture be correct), would form an interesting fact in the history of mediæval art. There are reasons for believing that the art of enamelling was practised at a very early period in Western Europe; indeed, it has been supposed to have been invented in Gaul. It would be curious, therefore, to find the remains of an enameller's workshop which had been in active operation in a city of Britain at so early a date, and that on an apparently rather large scale. It would lead us to suppose, also, that the Anglo-Saxons, who were celebrated also at a very early period for their skill in the manufacture of jewellery, and in goldsmiths' work in general, had learnt their art from the jewelers and enamellers who remained in the Roman cities which had not been destroyed.

In calling attention to these few articles of antiquity belonging to a particular class, I would again repeat that, found within so small a compass as our researches have as yet extended, they must be taken only as evidence of what interesting discoveries we may yet expect if we are enabled to go on actively in our explorations. It is already certain that science and art were not unknown in Uriconium. We have only opened one building which was not of a public character, and that has turned out to be the shop of an artizan in metals.  p20 To the south of this, still facing the forum, is an extensive building, which appears to have been a market-place, or a store-house of some kind or other, and which requires further examination. On the north, between the metal-worker's shop and the Basilica, with its front likewise to the forum, is another large, square room, which seems, like the workshop, to have been entered only from the forum, but which we have only yet examined sufficiently to assure ourselves that the walls internally are covered with stucco, or fresco. The opening was begun at the commencement of the season which would have been destructive to wall-paintings, and it was, therefore, abandoned temporarily. The excavations have since been carried on in other localities of the site of the ancient city, but slowly, in consequence, I regret to be compelled to state, of the paucity of funds at the disposal of the excavations committee.f


Thayer's Notes:

a Thomas Wright (1810‑1877): the first serious excavator of the Roman city (now usually called Viroconium) near the little town of Wroxeter. He started digging in 1859, and published his main summary work in 1872, Uriconium: a historical account of the ancient Roman city, and of the excavations made upon its site at Wroxeter, in Shropshire, forming a sketch of the condition and history of the Welsh border during the Roman period. What we have, thus, in this 1863 excavation report is a snapshot of him towards the beginning of his work and his finds.

b Celsus and Isidore: The former refers to the instrument more than seventy times in the De Medicina; Isidore mentions it in Etym. XIX.13.

c dialibanum: A recipe, heavy on toxic metals, is given in Celsus, VI.13, and see the footnote for the origin of the word.

d lippitudo: According to the translator of the Loeb edition of Celsus (ad VI.6), that writer "used lippitudo to translate the ὀφθαλμία of Hippocrates = running or bleary eyes (ὀφθαλμοὶ λημῶντες)".

e anvil depiction: the second bit of woodcut, and its description, are cribbed from Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, first published in 1842, s.v. Incus: you'll find a much clearer version of the engraving there.

f paucity of funds, etc.: some things never change! In 1863 as today, archaeologists often conclude their reports with a pitch for funds. (Perk up your ears, young students of archaeology: you'll spend much of your career begging for money.)

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Page updated: 21 Sep 04