One September morning last year two older couples were enjoying their morning coffee at St. Swithin’s church in Lincoln, UK when I had to ask them to move. Problem was their little card table in the church hall was right beside a 2,000 year old Roman altar and I couldn’t get a good picture of it without disturbing them. They were very accommodating, though, even inviting me to join them for coffee.
People over the years, including the Romans themselves, recycled stones in later buildings. This altar, dedicated by Augustus Caius Antistius Frontinus, was reused in the fourth century for Lincoln’s East Wall and only discovered in the 1870s when St. Swithin’s was built. Other signs of recycling in Lincoln include Roman bricks in a cottage chimney and a Roman wall incorporated into a much later shop front.
I started thinking about the recycling of Roman stones when writing about Maryport on England’s west coast. Here the entire fort of Alauna, built in AD 120s, was dismantled in the 18th century to build the new town of Maryport. Thankfully at the time Colonel Humphrey Senhouse hired a man to record and rescue any inscribed or carved stonework, adding to a collection started by his ancestor John Senhouse in 1570. Today the Senhouse Roman Museum has the largest collection of Roman military altar stones and inscriptions in Britain.
Another example is found in Caerwent, Wales, where inside the village church is a statue base with one of the most important inscriptions from Roman Britain, the Paulinus inscription. This early 3rd century dedication by Tiberius Claudius Paulinus, commander of the Second Augustan Legion, gives details about military and civilian careers, as well as civil administration in Roman Britain. It had been part of a post Roman building in the village.
All these moving stones are pieces in the puzzle of ancient history, and one never knows where they’ll turn up.