Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Romano-British style secrets star at new Viroconium museum

The Love Island look evidently has venerable roots. Accessories that helped Roman Britons to pile on eye makeup and banish body hair are among over 400 objects going on display in a new museum.

The beauty kits and tweezers, which evoke modern fads, are highlights of English Heritage’s largest single collection of over 50,000 artefacts — all excavated at Wroxeter in Shropshire. Now a small village, it was once the fourth largest city in Roman Britain, Viroconium, and covered an area similar to that of Pompeii in Italy.

The conservation charity said the site’s 1970s museum building had been “reduced to a shell and entirely redone”. Most of the display objects have not been on show before and the museum, which opens tomorrow (May 25), presents recent research findings. There is also a greater focus on Roman Wroxeter’s women, who were previously underrepresented.

The ruins at Wroxeter include large parts of a ‘leisure centre-plus’ that included baths, an exercise hall and shops. Photo: English Heritage

Cameron Moffett, curator at Wroxeter Roman City, said finds related to beauty and cleanliness were prominent because of their sheer volume in the archaeological record and the nature of the site. “It is a single insula, or city block, within the centre of Wroxeter that was essentially a leisure centre-plus. You had this environment in which women were coming out of their homes, out of the kitchens, and going about town, tapping into services on offer in the baths basilica — which was like an enormous exercise hall with room along the periphery for booths where people sold beauty services and things like that.

“Of course, they used the bathing facilities too. And they were shopping in the macellum — the market hall which is also within this insula.”

The macellum’s shops also sold meals and snacks and their rents covered the running of the baths, which comprised a series of hot and cold rooms, plunge pools, saunas and a steam room.

A reconstruction by Mikko Kriek of the huge bathhouse at Wroxeter, with the basilica to the right. ©Historic England/English Heritage

According to Moffett, Roman beauty products were perennially popular in Wroxeter and, like public baths, they played an important role in selling the Roman way of life. “The Romans really brought consumerism, which didn’t exist before. All of a sudden there were these marketplaces and you could choose from a huge range of things to buy to express yourself.

“Make-up was clearly well-received. There was an almost immediate invention or development of a little set of equipment specific to Britain. You have these little boat-shaped mortars with a loop, and a pestle that comes with them, and you could hang them together on a cord around your neck or waist so they were portable. At the same time, little mirrors were becoming popular accessories.

Later in the Roman period, during the third and fourth centuries, she said make-up palettes were made from offcuts of stone brought in to reroof the basilica. These palettes also served as a grinding surface, with glacially-rounded pebbles used as pestles.

Replicas of a boat-shaped portable mortar and pestle, left, and a later stone palette and pestle, right. Photo: English Heritage

So what were they so keen on grinding? “It was mostly eye make-up,” Moffett said. “There is information from sources such as Ovid and Pliny about cosmetics and beauty treatments. And I think you can see from looking at portraits like the Fayum mummy portraits that the focus was really on the eyes. In general, they would have been going heavy on the eyebrows and eyeliner and mascara, but you could also grind things to make a face powder, or colourful applications for your eyelids — there was a lot of potential.”

The mummy portraits she refers to are from Roman Egypt — a province that influenced style trends right across the empire. While Romans around the Mediterranean favoured Egyptian kohl for smokey eyes, Moffett said most Roman Britons had to make do with preparations of charcoal or lamp soot.

Jewellery was another adornment that is well represented in the museum. “Everyone wanted it, but not everyone could afford gold and ivory,” Moffett explained. “What you see when you have a huge collection with good preservation like ours, is that pieces got manufactured in a whole range of materials according to your pocket. We have a big section of jewellery made out of animal bones. Because the local economy was completely based on livestock, they were using animal bones for everything they could.”

Also commonplace was the removal of body hair — a procedure perceived as setting apart Romans and hirsute barbarians. Moffett said that in Britain this typically involved painstaking plucking with tweezers, although waxing was also known in southern Europe. Razors were available, but normally used to shave men’s beards.

A conservator examines one of the many pairs of tweezers used to remove body hair at Wroxeter. Photo: English Heritage

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that over 50 pairs of tweezers have been found at Wroxeter when Ovid, the Roman poet, urged any woman seeking a mate: “[Let] no rude goat find his way beneath your arms, and that your legs be not rough with bristling hairs!” At the same time, Moffett said the many men who came to wrestle at the baths wearing skimpy loin cloths were expected to “tidy themselves up and look the part”, including removing any body hair.

Plucking was probably available on-site. The Stoic philosopher and author Seneca complained of “the skinny armpit hair-plucker” at the baths of Rome “whose cries are shrill, so as to draw people’s attention, and never stop, except when he is doing his job and making someone else shriek for him.”

Moffett hopes that, through its compelling new interpretations of Romano-British life, the museum will help to raise the profile of Wroxeter.

The city had its origins in a legionary fortress that was used as a base for the Roman conquest of western Britain. Around 90AD, leaders of the local Cornovii tribe and Roman army veterans founded the tribal capital of Viroconium Cornoviorum on the fortress site. Grand civic buildings were erected during the reigns of Hadrian and his successor Antoninus Pius in the first century. Urban life continued until the mid-fifth century, several decades after the end of Roman rule.

A reconstruction of Roman Wroxeter in its heyday around 200AD, by JR Casals. Image: ©Historic England/English Heritage

The site is exceptionally well preserved, partly because its relatively remote location means there has been little disturbance of remains by later occupation. The visible ruins include parts of the connected baths, basilica and market complex. A seven-metre-high section of basilica wall known as “Old Work” is the largest freestanding piece of Roman wall in Britain. And part of the colonnade of the forum — the combined market, town and county hall and magistrates court — can also be seen.

In spite of its vast 78-hectare extent, Moffett said Roman Wroxeter was much less densely populated than Pompeii and included many large houses of local landowners, with sprawling suburban gardens. A recreation of one such townhouse was built at Wroxeter in 2010, using Roman building methods and findings from the excavation of a real dwelling at the site.

Unlike in the southeast, where landowners kept a townhouse and a country villa on their estates, Moffett said those based at Wroxeter tended not to keep second residences outside the city walls. “That may have had something to do with them feeling uneasy with the rural peasantry just outside. Wroxeter was like a gated community.”

Wroxeter Roman City is five miles southeast of Shrewsbury and visitor information is available on the English Heritage website. The top image shows a reenactor at the site sporting eye make-up in Roman fashion. Photo: English Heritage

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