The Roman Empire Comes to Dundee

By Jon Coulston

McManus Galleries, Dundee
McManus Galleries, Dundee

Until the 10th of May 2015 the MacManus Gallery in Dundee is hosting the British Museum exhibition, Roman Empire: Power & People. This displays some sixteen marble sculptures, and other classes of artefacts, from all over the ancient Roman world. Most are from the BM collections, including pieces not seen on public display for many years. However, there is a subtle emphasis on Roman period Scotland which customizes the visitor experience in Dundee. Particular attention is paid to Carpow in Fife (more on this below), as presented through finds in the McManus collections.

The two themes of the exhibition’s title dictated the choice of displayed items. The ‘people’ are represented by mummy portraits, funerary sculptures, jewelry and other lifestyle elements. ‘Power’ is symbolized by military equipment, portraits of emperors, gladiatorial artefacts, and the Roman perception of defeated barbarian peoples.

Marble barbarian from Alexandria in Egypt ‘showing the way’
Marble barbarian from Alexandria in Egypt ‘showing the way’

The collection reflects the history of the BM as an inheritor of private collections going back to the Renaissance period. The types of portable antiquities, both well-preserved as chance finds or as furnishings of protective tombs, also mirror collectors’ tastes.

Galleries are well lit with plenty of space for people to circulate, and labels are clear, rather in contrast to some recent exhibitions in the BM (e.g. Vikings: Life and Legend, 2014). Timeline panels by the entrance put the empire and Roman Scotland into related context.

Barbarians are especially prominent and there is a very cool placement of a sculpted captive looking up the main staircase, virtually ushering visitors on their way to the first floor galleries!

A relief from the Townley Collection depicts captured barbarian arms and armour, clearly modeled on the pedestal reliefs of Trajan’s Column in Rome. This piece has been off display in the BM for years and I last saw it in the 1980s.

Marble busts of female barbarians reflect Roman taste for the foreign, exotic, and perhaps erotic.

Relief of barbarian arms and armour, Townley Collection
Relief of barbarian arms and armour, Townley Collection

Bust of a Persian woman, Villa Montalto, Rome
Bust of a Persian woman, Villa Montalto, Rome

Some highlights include a reclining portrait of a lady holding a bust of her husband on her lap. More prosaically, the backs and sides of small marble sarcophagi are left in the roughed out state in which they left the quarries. Only the fronts were finished with sculptural ornament and inscriptions. Thus pieces were personalized but at minimum cost. Perhaps the sides as well as the backs were obscured by being pushed up against other sarcophagi or the walls of mausolea.

Cinerary urn in the form of a temple, unknown provenance
Cinerary urn in the form of a temple, unknown provenance

In contrast, a small cremation urn is lavishly carved in the form of a model temple with the finest style of lettering for its inscription.

For me (and I am entirely biased) the star of the show is not a marble carving of consummate craftsmanship, or a painted portrait from Egypt, but one artefact from Carpow in Fife.

Carpow sits just south of the confluence of the Tay and the River Forth (a Tay tributary, not the Forth), just east of Abernethy (Dore and Wilkes 1999). In the early 3rd century AD it was built by detachments of legionary soldiers who left their mark through sculpture, inscriptions and tile-stamps (on permanent display elsewhere in the McManus). When complete it probably housed troops of legio II Augusta (from Caerleon in south Wales) and legio VI victrix (from York). The site was excavated in the 1960s and 1970s and had stone fortifications with ornamented inscriptions. A central range of stone buildings included headquarters and a double set of baths, fed by a cross-country aqueduct. Barracks were built of timber.

In the permanent galleries there is a case dedicated to Carpow. Rather impressive is a near-complete olive oil amphora (Dressel type 20) imported from the Guadalquivir Valley in southern Spain. Olive oil had a great range of uses in the ancient word, such as lighting, cooking and lubrication, but I like to think of Roman legionaries in northern Britain drizzling olive oil on their salads! The stonework on display represents the most northerly finds of Roman carved stone and monumental inscriptions found in the world!  The latter help to date the site’s construction, along with the coins, ceramics and other artefacts.

Carpow case
Carpow case

Carpow stonework
Carpow stonework
Carpow scale armour case
Ham Hill scale armour
Carpow scale armour
Carpow scale armour

It was in a pit within the barracks area that the most amazing find was made: a small, folded section of scale armour. It has a case to itself in the exhibition and might not look very exciting at first glance.  However, I would say that it is the best preserved piece of scale cuirass yet found anywhere in the Roman empire west of Dura-Europos in Syria (see James 2004, 120-39)!

Scales of iron and bronze are quite common finds on military sites all along the Roman frontiers. Often two or more are recovered with metal ties attaching them together laterally. Occasionally a substantial group is found making up a significant proportion of scale coverage, as at Ham Hill in Somerset (Taunton Museum). However, these are only metal components. Scale armour (Latin lorica squamata) was also stitched with textile cords to a textile backing garment. Neck, arm and other openings were finished with a leather edging. Only in desiccated, water-logged and sealed environments are these organic components preserved.

The Carpow pit formed a context which retained textile and leather, as well as the metal elements.

Thus the cuirass piece retains its full range of components (Coulston 1999). As a result it is immensely valuable as a source of information not just for Roman usage, but also for a type of armour which was used from Bronze Age Egypt to the 19th century (Bishop and Coulston 2006, 64, 95-7, 139-40, 170-71).

The McManus approached me to provide information and comparative material for the armour case, and a number of my images of Roman depictions have been employed to show scale armour in use.

I am giving a gallery lecture entitled ‘Roman armour’ in the McManus at 15.00 on May 7th.


  • Bishop, M.C. and Coulston, J.C.N., Roman Military Equipment from the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome, second edition, Oxbow Publishing, Oxford, 2006
  • Coulston, J.C.N., ‘Scale armour’, in Dore and Wilkes 1999, 561-66
  • Dore, J.N. and Wilkes, J.J. (ed.), ‘Excavations directed by J.D. Leach and J.J. Wilkes on the site of a Roman fortress at Carpow, Perthshire, 1964-79’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquities of Scotland 129, 1999, 481-573
  • James, S., Excavations at Dura-Europos, 1928-1937. The Arms and Armour and other Military Equipment, British Museum Press, London, 2004

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