‘Absolutely amazing’: 1,800-year-old shattered Roman arm guard is reconstructed from 100 pieces

<span>Photograph: Duncan McGlynn/National Museums Scotland</span>
Photograph: Duncan McGlynn/National Museums Scotland

A spectacular brass guard that would have protected the sword arm of a high-ranking Roman soldier some 1,800 years ago has been reconstructed from more than 100 fragments found at Trimontium, the Roman fort complex in Scotland.

The extraordinary jigsaw puzzle has been pieced together by National Museums Scotland (NMS) in Edinburgh, and the arm-guard will now be lent to the British Museum’s forthcoming exhibition on life in the Roman army.

Made in the second century – with brass strips overlapping like an armadillo’s scales – it is one of only three known from the whole Roman Empire, and the most intact.

While most arm-guards were made of iron, which was more functional, brass would have looked golden on the wearer’s arm, marking out a soldier’s rank on the battlefield.

Dr Fraser Hunter, the NMS’s principal curator of prehistory and Roman archaeology, told the Observer: “It’s absolutely amazing. You get the sense of the protection this person had – and also the prestige. It would have gleamed gold and would have looked absolutely spectacular when he was wearing it.”

It was discovered in 1906 by James Curle, a lawyer and antiquary, at the site of the Trimontium fort in Newstead, near Melrose in the Scottish Borders. He thought it was a guard for the chest and shoulders, but he could not find any parallels. It was identified as an arm-guard in the 1990s but only now has it been put back together.

Hunter said that, as they began to work on some of the fragments, he realised that they had “the complete thing”: “The British Museum exhibition has really been the prompt to give us the time and the resources to bring all the bits together.”

This is most likely a critical piece of a legionary’s kit, he believes: “We know that there [were] legionaries in the garrison at the time. Because of the glamour of it – and brass was an expensive metal then – it’s probably a high-ranking centurion.”

He added that the scaled design would have deflected any blow, while underneath padding took most of the power: “Your right arm was completely protected.”

He added that, in about AD180, the Romans faced upheavals and unrest in Scotland: “There’s a literary reference to barbarians cutting down a general and his troops.”

While all the fragments have been in NMS’s collection for more than a century, one part had been on display for 25 years and another section was on loan to the Trimontium Museum. Fragments from it had lain in storage.

Bethan Bryan, the NMS’s artefact conservator, said that the jigsaw puzzle had been “an extreme challenge and a labour of love”.

It took about three weeks to complete and sometimes seemed impossible because some of the fragments are tiny. “Staring at the same things for three weeks takes a toll on your eyes and your brain,” said Bryan. Yet every last piece found its place.

The metal is in a good state of preservation, but patterns in the corrosion offer clues to where the leather and the padding were attached. Fragments of the original leather still survive.

The arm-guard appears to have been left behind when the Romans abandoned Trimontium . Before that, some 2,000 people would have lived there and in the settlement around it.

The arm-guard had been kept in the headquarters of the site’s latest fort. Hunter explained: “It’s where the commanding officer would brief his own officers. But it’s also, it seems, where repairs were being done – a workshop for military equipment. When the building was abandoned, any equipment that was deemed surplus to requirements, they just dumped.”