I’d been trying to get to Carlisle ever since my friend Les Morris first told me about a Roman exhibition at the city’s Tullie House museum. Les is a member of Carlisle’s cricket club, and had been in ‘on the ground’, as it were, for the repairs following Storm Desmond’s destruction back in 2015. He knew that during those repairs, archaeologists had discovered new areas of Carlisle’s third century Roman fort, including a previously undiscovered bath-house, and links to the imperial court.
The discoveries were of international importance, and it was only right that the local (and excellent) museum should get first dibs on showing off the finds. Sadly, the intervening months have been a nightmare of Covid, train strikes, other commitments, and general Stuff Getting in the Way. But finally, a couple of weeks ago, Dave and I managed to take a Friday off and shoot up to Carlisle on the train. There we met another friend, Angela King, and the three of us headed for Tullie House to have a good mooch round the Uncovering Roman Carlisle exhibition.
I’m ashamed to say that I was so busy nattering to Angela that I didn’t pay nearly enough attention to the displays. However, I do remember seeing lots of Roman tiles, many of them from the columns of a hypocaust (Roman central heating) system, and many featuring flaws, mis-firings, and the footprints of animals from where they were laid out in the sun to dry. I wondered whether the Romans who built the bath-house had deliberately used seconds and off-cuts in places that wouldn’t be seen, which if true, is a delightfully human trait.
The link to the imperial court escapes me, although it has something to do with markings that suggest imperial troops were present in the city (and presumably, with them, the emperor) at a time when nobody expected them to be. I tried to look up more detail online but couldn’t find anything, so will have to hope that information trickles through as the results of the excavation are analysed a bit more.
After lunch we had a further mooch around a separate exhibition running side-by-side with the Roman Carlisle one, focussing on artefacts from all the most far-flung regions of the Roman empire. The northernmost border for most of that time was Hadrian’s Wall, which ran pretty much through Carlisle, and it was represented by a gorgeous little enamelled bowl featuring forts along the wall: a genuine Roman souvenir! Another sign of just how like us the Romans were.
And after that, we explored the permanent displays on the Roman period at Tullie House. There are a lot of them as Carlisle was so important in Roman times, and I was tickled pink to come across a plaque (pictured above) about the famous Ninth Legion, which vanished from all records in a rather mysterious way. I first heard about this legion at school and have been fascinated ever since – so much so I included it as a backstory in my vampire romance Echoes of Blood.
The Uncovering Roman Carlisle exhibition has ended now (we sat it on its second-to-last day), but it’s touring the area around the city so if you’re nearby and would like to see the discoveries for yourself, head to the Tullie House website for more details. You won’t be disappointed.