Roman roads approached Durham from three directions, but their routes through the farming landscape are unknown. The military road, Dere Street, built c. 78-84 AD, away to the west, headed northwards to Hadrian's Wall.
A few finds of Samian pottery from Palace Green and New Elvet indicate some Roman contact. Outside the city, at Old Durham, a native farmstead was Romanised as a villa and inhabited from 150-300 AD. A bath house, as well as circular threshing floors, suggest that this was the home of a prosperous farmer.
Although Durham City was not a Roman centre, many of the Museum collections reflect excavations at the military sites of Binchester, Piercebridge and Hadrian's Wall. The Pittington seal used to mark military baggage bears the insignia of a cavalry unit stationed at South Shields. Many Roman inscriptions (altars, milestones, tombstones, and dedication plaques from the collections of Canon William greenwell and the Rev. R.E. Hoopell) are of key research interest for Roman military scholars, as is the Oswald-Plique collection of Gaulish samian pottery.
The Oswald-Plique Samianware Collection
The Oswald-Plicque Collection was the personal samian collection of Dr. Felix Oswald. It was acquired by Professor Eric Birley for Durham University in 1950 and is now housed in the the Old Fulling Mill Museum of Archaeology.
Background to the Collection
Dr. Felix Oswald, born 1866, specialised initially in botany, zoology and geography. His interest in samian was formed at a young age, one of the sherds in his collection being labelled in his handwriting as “Barge Yard, purchased 1880”. By profession a District Probate Registrar, Oswald’s amateur interest in archaeology continued into adult life in the form of archaeological excavations at Margidunum, Nottingham, and finally to the research and publication in 1920 of An Introduction to the Study of Terra Sigillata. His two other major works on samian ware, the Index of Potters’ Stamps on Terra Sigillata and Index of Figure Types on Terra Sigillata appeared in 1931 and 1937 respectively.
Oswald appears to have had a particular interest in samian from London. 273 sherds excavated in London but provenanced to both Central and Southern Gaul formed the nucleus of his collection and all were annotated in great detail. Oswald acquired his section of the Plicque Collection sometime between 1931 and 1936 from the widowed Mme. Plicque. This forms the largest section of Oswald’s collection and contains Central Gaulish samian, either from the site of Les Martres de Veyre on the Allier, or from Dr. Alfred-Edward Plicque’s excavations at Lezoux, a few miles further north (undertaken between 1879 and 1894).
Oswald’s original allegiance was not to Durham but to Nottingham University, where he had worked on the material from Margidunum. He had already given a section of the Oswald-Plicque Collection, namely the plain ware, the stamps and the complete bowls (some of which were decorated) to Nottingham University by the time the rest of the collection was offered to Eric Birley.
Other Plicque material had already been dispersed after the death of Dr. Plicque around 1901: the main body of the collection is housed in the Musée d’Antiquités Nationales, St. Germain-en-Laye, Paris. Other collections of Plicque material are known at Montpellier, Leiden and Clermont Ferrand.
The Research Resource
The Oswald-Plicque Collection in Durham comprises nearly 5000 sherds of figured samian, 90% of which is Central Gaulish and 10% of which is South Gaulish material. Dr. Oswald identified 99 potters’ styles and the collection has examples of many more, ranging in date from the first century material of Lezoux and South Gaul to the latest products of Lezoux. In addition to the samian itself, the collection includes 4646 samian drawings by Dr. Oswald.
Collection of Roman Inscriptions
A collection of over fifty inscribed and sculptured Roman stones is on long term loan to the museum from the Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral. The collection is remarkably comprehensive and forms the earliest group in public ownership in the North of England. It has exhibits from the main forts in (pre-1974) County Durham and in Northumberland from Corbridge and High Rochester along the line of Dere Street, the Roman Great North Road. It also contains one or more inscriptions from nearly every fort along the line of Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland.
The greater part of the collection had been assembled by the 1750's. In 1754, William Stukely, in writing to the Princess of Wales, says that in the Chapter Library at Durham 'there is a very fine collection of Roman antiquitys, which I coppyed in the year 1725. I observe that they are very elegantly cut, both as to letters and sculpture of figures....'.
The collection comprises dedications to deities, Imperial and official inscriptions, one milestone and a tombstone. The collection is of national and international significance for all scholars researching the Western Roman Empire.
This collection is augmented by other significant Roman material from the excavations of Professor Eric Birley and from the Roman fort of Vinovia (Binchester), County Durham.
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