New Roman graffiti found in project to record ancient quarry carvings

New Roman graffiti has been discovered by experts recording carvings which were made centuries ago by soldiers quarrying stone to repair Hadrian’s Wall.

Inscriptions left by the Roman army at the remains of a quarry at Gelt Woods in Cumbria are being recorded before they are lost forever as a result of erosion of the soft sandstone in which they were made.

Archaeologists from Newcastle University are descending 30ft (9m) down the quarry face to record the “written rock of Gelt”, in a project funded by government agency Historic England.

The carvings are at risk of being lost to erosion (Historic England/PA)
The carvings are at risk of being lost to erosion (Historic England/PA)

Carvings on the rock face include a caricature of the commanding officer in charge of the quarrying and an inscription dating to 207AD, a period when Hadrian’s Wall had a major repair and renewal programme.

The experts now say they have uncovered new graffiti while carefully clearing vegetation off the rock to record the inscriptions, including a phallus which would have been a general good luck symbol to the Romans who carved it.

A shallow relief of a left-facing bust, new writing and lettering which was thought to have been lost to erosion were also uncovered on the first day of surveying of the site.

The markings were first discovered in the 18th century, but have suffered in recent years from the gradual erosion of the sandstone into which they were cut, prompting the decision to record them.

The site is one of a handful of Roman quarries in England to feature these kind of carvings, and the information is important because it gives the names of men, and in some cases their rank and military unit.

The archaeologists have to descend 30ft down the quarry face to record the inscriptions (Historic England/PA)
The archaeologists have to descend 30ft down the quarry face to record the inscriptions (Historic England/PA)

One carving which refers to the consulate of Aper and Maximus can be dated to 207AD and offers proof of rebuilding and repair work to the Roman frontier in the early 3rd century.

The collapse of a path up to the site in the 1980s put a halt to the public being able to view the inscriptions, so the project will make a 3D record of the graffiti for people to be able to see them.

In order to record the carvings, the archaeologists from Newcastle University are working with rock climbing specialists to gain access to the graffiti on a system of ropes and pulleys.

They are using an imaging technique known as “structure from motion photogrammetry” to produce a 3D record of the writings for the public, and to help them better understand the condition the markings are in.

Mike Collins, inspector of ancient monuments for Hadrian’s Wall at Historic England, said: “These inscriptions at Gelt Forest are probably the most important on the Hadrian’s Wall frontier.

“They provide insight into the organisation of the vast construction project that Hadrian’s Wall was, as well as some very human and personal touches, such as the caricature of their commanding officer inscribed by one group of soldiers.”

Ian Haynes, professor of archaeology at Newcastle University, said: “These inscriptions are very vulnerable to further gradual decay.

“This is a great opportunity to record them as they are in 2019, using the best modern technology to safeguard the ability to study them into the future.”