Monday, June 20, 2011

The Lost Roman Province of Occidentia-Part One

Jeff, one of my fellow excavators, noted the other day that the numbers of Americans and Canadians coming over to work at Vindolanda were really not surprising “because you have no archeology of your own”.

He of course did not mean we had “no” archeology, there is quite a lot of Pre-Columbian history, and even the study of more recent times is a wide topic.

No, Jeff meant we had no Roman archeology.

And in this my erudite friend was most atypically, incorrect.

We have a fair amount of Roman archeology here in North (and South) America.  It just does not make much if any sense.

Let me be clear.  What I am going to undertake is a quick survey of Roman artifacts “found” in the New World.  This will of necessity be a superficial look, if for no other reason than the scattered and often non scientific nature of the find data.

In trying to make some sense of this jumble I divide the data into three groups.

  1. The explainable
  2. The dubious
  3. The enigmatic
Let’s start out with a few Roman artifacts that make sense.

There are numerous accounts of Roman coins being found on the harbor floors of New World ports.  This is undoubtedly a result of ships traveling “in ballast”.  As this land lubber understands it:

Sailing ships need a certain amount of weight to be seaworthy.  They need it to maintain that proverbial “even keel”.  This is not a problem for a fully laden vessel.  But suppose you are a skipper put into the Port of London, and are not fortunate enough to contract for a full cargo?  Well, you just load up with extra rock and gravel from the nearest available source, which would be the Thames foreshore.  Chock a block with artifacts from the prehistoric era right up to last week.

Off you go to, say, Boston.  There a full cargo awaits, so you simply dump the extra ballast on the spot. 

Perhaps on a future voyage you will travel “in ballast” from the West Indies to London, where your offloaded ballast includes the bit of fossilized coral I mentioned finding in my post on Mud larking.

Specifics are a little sketchy on these finds-I did find a fairly complete account from Long Island Sound-probably because these artifacts being correctly regarded as totally out of context get little attention.  In general they tend to be the sort of Constantinian era small issues that one would expect to have been lost or discarded throughout the Empire.

Of a similar nature are the few shards of Samian ware found amongst the ballast stones of the 1621 wreck of the British supply ship Warwick in Castle Harbor, Bermuda.  (Although the actual origin of the ballast proper has been proven to not be London, and remains a mystery).

For a more impressive artifact-and one with impeccable context-behold!

This is a genuine Roman oil lamp, excavated with perfect archeological technique.

The only problem is that the context is early 1600s!

Yep, this was found at Jamestown, where it likely was a “curiosity” carried over by one of the Gentleman Adventurers.  It perhaps tells us a little about the character of those early and somewhat impractical settlers.

Certainly the troubled history of  Jamestown could have been much improved upon by simply importing a sufficiency of sturdy yeoman farmers rather than Gentlemen who hoped to grow rich picking gold nuggets up off the ground, or perhaps by trading worthless trinkets to the natives.

At least this unknown savant did not further complicate the archeological record by trading this artifact to some passing native for a haunch of venison.  In our next section-the Dubious-we will encounter a few such problems.


Hadriana's Treasures said...


Yes..I can well imagine this. I do like to think that our human lives are as mixed up as our archaeology...the one reflects the other and so on ad infinitum.....

Go back to Don Quixote and all our answers lie there or in our archaeology. Life is a dream and all that! ;)

Hadriana's Treasures said... should be 'Calderon de la Barca' (Spanish version of Shakespeare) rather than Don Quixote "Life is a Dream" but DQ's 'tilting at windmills' is the same diff. This philosophy is then carried on into South American literature...which is like the Roman oil lamp turning up on your shores....