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Rare Roman Document Reveals Britain’s First Named Sailor

posted on 18/07/17

A rare Roman document, engraved into copper alloy plates, has revealed the identity of Britain’s first named sailor.

He was called Tigernos, and the document granted Roman citizenship to him and his descendants as he was discharged from the Classis Germanica, the Roman fleet in Germany. To earn this valuable right, he would probably have served as a sailor for 26 years.

Documents like this were given to soldiers and sailors across the Empire on retirement, and are known by modern archaeologists as fleet or military diplomas. This one was issued in the name of Emperor Antoninus Pius around AD 150. Broken into eight pieces, it was unearthed near Lanchester, Co. Durham in 2016 by metal detectorist Mark Houston.

It’s the first complete fleet diploma discovered in Britain, and contains important information about an aspect of the Roman Empire for which there has been little firm evidence. The Classis Germanica was probably headquartered at Cologne-Alteburg and patrolled the Rhine and the North Sea coast of Germania Inferior (a territory which included modern Luxembourg, the southern Netherlands and parts of western Germany). In the relatively peaceful years of the mid-2nd century, it’s likely to have been engaged in engineering and construction projects as well. So Tigernos may well have spent as much of his career building as sailing.

However, our understanding of the fleet’s activities is still sketchy. It’s hoped that the diploma – which is being studied by Dr Roger Tomlin of Oxford University – will add more detail, as well as mapping out Tigernos’ career.

From July 20, the diploma will be on public display for the first time at Durham University’s Museum of Archaeology. It’s part of Britain’s Festival of Archaeology 2017, which runs until July 30 and is coordinated by the Council for British Archaeology. Hundreds of lectures and hands-on-activities are taking place across the country – and include the chance to cast a bronze axe at the Royal Cornwall Museum, as well as discovering the skills behind facial reconstruction at the Museum of Liverpool.

Those with a keen interest in Roman history might also be interested in The Romans Ride Again – a recreation of the skills and drills of the Roman cavalry on August 5 and 6, at Segendum Roman Fort in Wallsend. It’s part of Hadrian’s Cavalry – a series exhibitions along the Hadrian’s wall which highlights the key role played by mounted troops on the frontier.

On 20 October this year the Cultural Travel Company begins a four-day tour of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the landscape of the Vesuvius eruption. The details of Roman life entombed by this disaster are without parallel, and in the company of Dr Nigel Spivey, Senior Lecturer in Classical Art & Archaeology at Cambridge University, we’ll be considering both the catastrophe, and extraordinary range of evidence it preserved.


View full details of Archaeology in Pompeii (20–23 October 2017)

View all archaeology trips

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