|Caroline Lawrence & Simon Elliott|
by Caroline Lawrence
Last month I went along to the Guildhall Library to hear historian and archaeologist Simon Elliott speak about the origins of Roman London. Simon’s PhD thesis was on the sources and supply of Kentish ragstone from which London was built.
He agreed to a quick email interview and kindly answered my most burning questions.
|The Guildhall Library, London|
Simon: It references the enormous scale of this industry in the upper Medway Valley which for 200 years provided the principle building stone for Roman London. The men involved at the top end of that industry made huge profits, both for the Emperor and his Imperial fiscus and for themselves. The stone itself is a fine quality limestone which is both wearable and durable, so perfect for use in the built environment.
Caroline: You had the brilliant idea to use meticulously drawn Ordnance Survey maps from the 18th century to locate possible Roman quarries, and you found five of them in Kent. Which is the most exciting of these?
|part of London's Roman Wall featuring ragstone|
Caroline: You mention ‘metalla’. What does that word mean exactly?
Simon: Metalla is a term used across the Roman Empire to describe all mining and quarrying enterprises, especially those larger in nature such as the ragstone quarries of the upper Medway Valley.
Caroline: The Kentish quarries were all located near the Medway, a river which flows into the Thames estuary. You believe the heavy ragstone was shipped to London on a boat like the famous Roman barge found near Blackfriars and excavated by Peter Marsden and his team in 1962. What was special about ‘Blackfriars 1’, as it is now called?
|Alan Sorrell's painting of a Roman barge|
|Simon Elliott gives a talk at Guildhall Library|
Simon: I wouldn’t call myself a sailor, but I have friends who sail and they have kindly taken me along the route of the boats carrying the ragstone to London. It is a difficult journey and I have the utmost respect for them.
Caroline: I also loved your breakdown of a possible ‘pecking order’ of the running of the mines:
• PROCURATOR METALLORUM
(not THE Procurator of Britannia but one of his right-hand men)
(probably Roman citizens)
• SKILLED WORKERS
(e.g. those made iron tools to extract and shape stone)
• OVERSEERS or FOREMEN
• PAID WORKERS from LOCAL POPULATION
• FORCED LABOUR (CRIMINALS & SLAVES)
Can you tell me a little more about the contractors?
Simon: The contractors would have been metalla mercantile specialists employed by the procurator metallorum to run the operation from top to bottom, though I believe the State may actually have employed the military to run the ragstone quarries.
|Kubrick's vision of a Libyan quarry from Spartacus (1960)|
Simon: I think if you were condemned to work in the metalla as a punishment, or as a slave, your life would have been brutal and short. We have skeletal evidence to show such workers suffered multiple injuries before dying a miserable death.
Simon: We have villas appearing in the Medway Valley from the later 1st century AD, and in fact across Kent the villa ‘peak’ was actually the 2nd century AD after which there is a steady decline. The region didn’t feature a late flowering of villa culture as for example found in the south west.
Caroline: Finally, you mentioned a book you are writing about Septimius Severus. Can you tell us the working title and what it will be about?
Simon: This will be called ‘Septimius Severus in Scotland: the Northern Campaigns of the First Hammer of the Scots.’ It will tell the story, in full book form for the first time, of the brutal Severan campaigns in Scotland in AD 209 and AD 210.
Caroline: Thanks very much, Simon. I am hoping to go along to your evening talk on Later Roman London and the End of Roman Britain this Thursday 12 October at 6pm.
He also features on a couple of episodes of Dan Snow’s History Hit.
And look out for his new book on Septimius Severus in Scotland.