Bronze Dolphin from Epiacum Roman Fort

A bronze dolphin, probably the handle of a strigil (a scraper used to cleanse the skin of dirt and perspiration prior to bathing), found in a molehill in the Epiacum bath-house.
Source: Paul Frodsham.
Copyright: Paul Frodsham.

Glass Bead from Epiacum Roman Fort

Tiny glass bead in red, white and blue, found in a molehill on the site of the bath-house at Epiacum.
Source: Marc Johnstone.
Copyright: Marc Johnstone.

Jet Bead from Epiacum Roman Fort

Jet bead, found in a molehill close to the commanding officer’s house at Epiacum.
Source:  Marc Johnstone.
Copyright:  Marc Johnstone.

Molehill Survey at Epiacum Roman Fort

Molehill survey in progress at Epiacum in 2011.
Source: Paul Frodsham.
Copyright: Paul Frodsham.

Epiacum Bronze Dolphin & Glass Beads
Original Location: Epiacum Roman fort, Alston
Current Location: Private
Theme: Social
Period: Roman
Date: 3rd century AD (probably)

What is it?
A bronze dolphin and beads of glass and jet, found (along with hundreds of other Roman objects) during the annual molehill surveys at Epiacum (2011-2015).

What is its relevance to the North Pennines?
Epiacum Roman fort, on the Maiden Way Roman road north of Alston, was built, probably at about the same time as Hadrian’s Wall, to oversee lead and silver mining in the North Pennines. Recent survey work by English Heritage has demonstrated the extremely well preserved nature of the fort, and the complex nature of the surrounding historic landscape including remains from pre-Roman, roman and post-Roman times.      

The interior of the fort is covered with thousands of molehills each spring, and these contain numerous small artefacts mixed up with the soil. With special permission from the government and Historic England (necessary due to the site being a legally protected ancient monument), armies of volunteers from the Altogether Archaeology project and Friends of Epiacum sieve through all the molehills to recover these artefacts before they are damaged or destroyed, for example through being trampled by cattle or broken up by natural weathering processes. The entire fort is gridded out in 10 x 10 metre squares, and all finds are accurately recorded in relation to a detailed survey of the site produced by English Heritage. All finds are later photographed and catalogued at finds workshops, and eventually a detailed report will be produced that will attempt to interpret the finds in relation to the history of Epiacum.

The finds illustrate the cosmopolitan nature of life at Epiacum in Roman times. The bead illustrated here is one of several found during the molehill surveys. They are almost identical to examples on a necklace from a 3rd century burial of an apparently high-status woman recently excavated at Hungate, York, which are thought be have been made in North Africa or the Mediterranean.

Other finds from the molehill surveys include hundreds of sherds of pottery of different types, coins, and many iron objects including lots of large nails, perhaps originally used in the construction of timber buildings.

Why is it important?
These finds serve to demonstrate the fact that Roman Epiacum was about much more than just military activity. Together with the recent detailed survey by English Heritage, and information from earlier investigations, they help to demonstrate the importance of Epiacum during Roman times, when it was clearly a very busy place, providing the focus for extensive exploitation of the mineral wealth of the North Pennines. Epiacum certainly deserves a more prominent place than it has enjoyed to date in discussions of Roman life in northern England.

Further Information
    Text References:
  • Full report in preparation. A link to it will available here in due course.
  • External Links:

Other Information that might be useful:
All the finds from the molehill survey will be written up and published, though this will take some time. In the meantime, for further information about the survey or the finds please contact the North Pennines AONB Historic Environment Officer at the AONB offices.

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