Why Roman stones were more colourful than you realised…

By Andrew Parkin, Keeper of Archaeology, Great North Museum: Hancock

A wide view of a gallery space in a museum. There is a large platform in the centre of the room housing a scale model of Hadrian’s Wall.
The Hadrian’s Wall Gallery at the Great North Museum: Hancock

Anyone visiting the Hadrian’s Wall Gallery in the Great North Museum: Hancock will be struck by the large quantity of Roman inscribed stonework from the collection of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne (SANT). There are inscriptions commemorating when particular buildings were built, tombstones as memorials for the dead and altars set up to the gods. All of these, with their Latin inscriptions, provide us with valuable evidence for life on Rome’s northern frontier. Despite their importance in giving us a window onto the world of Hadrian’s Wall the inscriptions are mainly carved in sandstone and, in the opinion of many, are not the most visually engaging objects. However, what you see in the Museum is not how these inscribed stones would originally have appeared.

It has long been known that Roman carved stonework, including statues as well as inscriptions, was originally painted. This would have made it stand out and, in the case of inscriptions, make things more legible. Traces of original paint can still be seen on some Roman sculpture and this has given a tantalising glimpse into their possible original appearance. An example from Hadrian’s Wall is the altar dedicated by Marcus Simplicius Simplex found in the temple of Mithras at Carrawburgh. Here the excavators of the temple noticed traces of red paint on Mithras’ cloak and some slight indications that his face was originally covered in plaster and painted.

A Roman stone altar showing the god Mithras. He wears a robe and has a halo of sunbeams behind his head.
Altar to Mithras dedicated by Marcus Simplicius Simplex at the Carrawburgh Mithraeum. Now housed in the Great North Museum: Hancock
How Roman stones might have looked. Three altars and a relief showing a bull being killed by the god Mithras are painted in bright primary colours.
A reconstruction of Mithraic stonework from Carrawburgh giving an impression of how the original Roman paintwork might have looked. The altar of Marcus Simplicius Simplex is on the left

Unfortunately most Roman stonework, particularly from the northern frontier, has lost the vast majority of its original paintwork. The colours have faded through exposure to the harsh climate of northern Britain, including high rainfall and low temperatures. Buried material has also suffered over time from acidic soils and ground saturation. Alongside these natural processes many pieces of Roman stonework have also suffered from over-zealous cleaning by museum staff. In the not too distant past it was common for objects to be thoroughly cleaned, including in some cases, the use of wire wool to gently abrade the surface. All these factors have combined to make it difficult to reconstruct original colour schemes.

Nevertheless, in recent years our knowledge of the paint applied to Roman stonework has been greatly improved through the use of non-destructive analytical techniques. Portable X-ray fluorescence (pXRF) and portable Raman spectrometry have both been successfully exploited to analyse the pigments applied to stonework. Dr Louisa Campbell at Glasgow University has pioneered this approach and her work has given remarkable insights into the colours used on Roman relief sculptures from the Antonine Wall in Scotland. The paints used were made from naturally occurring minerals including iron ore, chalk and clay. Dr Campbell has also carried out initial analysis of some of the altars in the Great North Museum: Hancock and her results have been fascinating.

Scientific analysis has allowed us to build up an idea of what some of our Roman altars and inscriptions might have been like and this has led to a scheme to use projection to share this information with visitors. The Museum teamed up with Newcastle University’s Hadrian’s Wall Community Archaeology Project (WallCAP), who gave us some useful feedback on the Hadrian’s Wall Gallery as well as supplying funding for the work via the National Lottery Heritage Fund. We commissioned NOVAK, a creative studio based in the north east who specialise in video design and projection mapping, to develop our ideas. The end result was the Roman Britain in Colour Display which uses projectors to bring colour back to a group of seven altars in the Hadrian’s Wall Gallery.

Seven Roman sandstone altars in a museum. They are upright cuboid sculptures carved with Latin inscriptions and decorations.
The group of seven Roman altars in the Hadrian’s Wall Gallery
Seven Roman sandstone altars in a museum. This time they have colourful embellishments projected onto the stone surface in white, yellow, red and blue.
The altars transformed. The projections give a vivid impression of the original colour scheme

Each of our selected altars has been reconstructed to give a sense of what colours might have been used when they were first set up. The projection also includes extra material that either says something about the deity the altar was set up to, translates the inscription or gives an insight into the way the altars were used as a focus for sacrificial offerings. This new interpretation injects some brightness into the Hadrian’s Wall Gallery, demonstrating that life on the northern frontier was not as bland and colourless as it previously appeared to our visitors who were faced with banks of sandstone altars, tombstones and building inscriptions.

A short film explaining the Roman Britain in Colour Display with Dr Rob Collins of the Hadrian’s Wall Community Archaeology Project
Close up of a sandstone Roman altar. It features a projected image of a soldier pouring either red wine or animal blood onto the top of an altar.
This altar set up to Fortuna may have been the focus of ritual offerings using either wine or animal blood

Interestingly this project is not the first attempt at using colour to interpret the Roman stonework in the Museum. In the early 1960s an artist, Mary Hurrell, was employed to add red paint to some of the inscriptions in the Museum of Antiquities, which at the time was the home of SANT’s archaeology collections. The red paint was applied to several inscriptions and altars making their letters more legible for visitors. Great care was taken in choosing altars and inscriptions that had no trace of original colour on them so that any evidence of original colour schemes would not be damaged. Even so the contrast between the use of paint to colour inscriptions and the use of projection demonstrates how far interpretative techniques in museums have developed over the last 60 years. Adding modern colour to an ancient object is certainly not something that we would consider today.

A woman with short hair and glasses is painting the letters of a Latin inscription on a Roman stone using red paint.
Mary Hurrell painting a Roman inscription from Risingham Roman fort in the former Museum of Antiquities

The Roman Britain in Colour Display at the Great North Museum: Hancock is open daily with free entry. Roman Britain in Colour is made possible with The National Lottery Heritage Fund. Thanks to National Lottery players, we have been able to reimagine seven Roman altars in vivid colour.

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