Monday 9 October 2017

Roman London’s ‘Grey Gold’

Caroline Lawrence & Simon Elliott
an interview with Dr 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
Caroline: Simon, I loved your talk about early Roman London and how most of the post-Boudican public buildings were built of Kentish ragstone because London has no stone of its own, only gravel, flint and clay. You called the Kentish ragstone grey gold. What does that mean?

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
Simon: Of the five Roman ragstone quarries I located during my research, all of which are huge in size, that at Dean Street above Maidstone is exponentially large. Running for 2.5km, it has an area of 356,400 square metres and would be the largest man made whole in Roman Britain, matching in size any of the metalla across the Empire. It was so large it may have had a canal down the middle to facilitate the transport of the quarried stone down to the River Medway for onward transport to London.

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: The Blackfriars 1 ship was a ubiquitous type of merchant vessel (of various sizes but similar design) found across the North Sea and British Isles region, built in a North Sea tradition rather than Mediterranean.  Crucially it had high sides and a wide beam to help it ride out the rough waters of north western Europe, this also aiding stability when operating in a riverine environment such as the Medway with a heavy load. That excavated in 1962 was important for our studies as it featured a load of 26 tonnes of Kentish ragstone.

Simon Elliott gives a talk at Guildhall Library
Caroline: So Blackfriars 1 sunk with all that ragstone still on board? That’s a lot of rock. Are you a sailor yourself?

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:

(not THE Procurator of Britannia but one of his right-hand men)

(probably Roman citizens)
(e.g. those made iron tools to extract and shape stone)
(probably freedmen)

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)
Caroline: What about those lowest on the pecking order, the slaves and criminals? You mentioned the opening scenes of the 1960 film Spartacus which shows the terrible conditions of a Roman mine in Libya. Do you think this gives a good idea of what life for a slave or condemned criminal might have looked like in the Kentish quarries (apart from the blistering heat, of course)? 

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.

Caroline: You mentioned that some of the five Kentish quarries had Roman villas nearby, suggesting that mine operators got rich. But I thought most Romano-British villas didnt appear until the 3rd century. Isn’t Londinium ‘built by then? 

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 didnt 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.

Simon Elliott has written Empire State, about the Roman Army NOT fighting in Britannia. His previous book, Sea Eagles of Empire, about the Classis Britannica and the Battles for Britain, won Military History Monthlys Book of the Year 2017! 

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


David Connon said...

Thank you, Caroline, for this fascinating interview.

michelle lovric said...

really interesting. Love the illustrations!