Exploring the legacy of Roman influence in Sandy

PUBLISHED: 11:42 28 January 2018 | UPDATED: 12:08 28 January 2018

An artist's reconstruction of what Roman Sandy may have looked like. Picture: Martin Elvery

An artist's reconstruction of what Roman Sandy may have looked like. Picture: Martin Elvery

Archant

So how many people know that the small town of Sandy had a prestigious Roman past?

An artist's impression of what the mansio or travellers inn may have looked like. Picture: Martin ElveryAn artist's impression of what the mansio or travellers inn may have looked like. Picture: Martin Elvery

Not me for one – until I was kindly shown around the town’s excellent collection of Roman treasures at the town council offices by town mayor’s wife Diane Osborne last week – that is.

Mrs Osborne leads fascinating talks about the impressive collection of artefacts for school pupils to help them uncover the secrets of Roman Sandy for themselves.

On display in the town hall in Cambridge Road are a range of objects, mainly recovered from a major dig at the town’s cemetery between 1988 and 1991 carried out by English heritage and Bedfordshire County Archaeology Service..

Piece by piece they reveal the life of a small Roman town, but one which played host to travellers and traders from across the vast Roman empire.

A pottery face depicting a Roma woman complete with intricate hairstyle. Picture: Martin ElveryA pottery face depicting a Roma woman complete with intricate hairstyle. Picture: Martin Elvery

It seems that the central feature of this Roman settlement was probably a ‘mansio’ - the Roman equivalent of a coaching inn, where travellers rested and horses were changed on the major Roman road which led north – eventually to the key Roman fort York (Eboracum).

A small excavation and geophysical survey in 1994 to 1995 showed the possible location for the mansio.

Other buildings in the town may have been small farms and houses known as villas.

The many activities that went on in this small town are evident from the many impressive finds. So- called folded beakers – which were specially shaped to make them easier to hold – have been found in large numbers at Sandy suggesting a lot of drinking. This would be typical of a mansio town where tired travellers would be in need of liquid refreshment.

A variety of pottery found in Sandy. The settlement would have received visitors from across teh Roman Empire in the form of travellers and traders. Picture: Martin ElveryA variety of pottery found in Sandy. The settlement would have received visitors from across teh Roman Empire in the form of travellers and traders. Picture: Martin Elvery

Spinning whorls, weaving tablets and needles show that clothes were being woven here – probably by women skilled in the art, and Roman coins show that people were buying and selling things. The earliest coins in Sandy are from the period AD 41 to 54. The Romans didn’t invade Britain until AD 43 so Romamn influence must have spread quickly. Other coins endorsed with the heads of emperor Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Constantine the Great, come from much later on, indicating continual use of the town for a period of around 350 years.

Other items show that Roman culture and trade was influencing the town and gradually becoming more dominant than the British culture that would have been here before the invasion.

Brooches such as a very fine gilded example depicting the Roman winged goddess of Victory is a star of the Sandy collection.

Figurines made of terracotta and clay depict Roman gods and goddesses such as Minerva and Bacchus showing Roman religious were present in the town. However often Roman culture did not so much supersede the British as become fused with it. This is best shown in Sandy by an impressive fragment of a large stone sculpture which is the highlight of the collection. It seems to depict gods and goddesses who are Celtic in origin, but perhaps influenced by the Roman Classical style.

A rare stone sculpture found at Sandy depicts a Celtic or Romano-British deity. Picture: Martin ElveryA rare stone sculpture found at Sandy depicts a Celtic or Romano-British deity. Picture: Martin Elvery

Collections of plates, bowls and cooking pots reveal cooking and eating habits. Many of these were probably made in local potteries, but other, finer examples such as the impressive Samian ware imported from Gaul, are also found here.

That women spent time giving themselves a makeover in sandy is shown by the many hair pins, tweezers, nail cleaners, brooches and mirrors that have been found.

Although the local British people may have largely continued to wear British dress and fashions, these items suggest wealthier Romans or those influenced by Roman fashions also passed through the town.

Recent excavations have revealed many burials outside the town’s houses.

A reconstruction of what some of the houses may have looked like. Picture: Martin ElveryA reconstruction of what some of the houses may have looked like. Picture: Martin Elvery

Cremation was more popular during the earlier Roman occupation and funerary urns have been found along with offerings of jewellery and coins – made in the hope they would help sustain the soul of the dead person on their way to the underworld – the Roman equivalent of heaven.

Remains also show evidence of working brass, bronze, silver and iron all took place at Sandy and it is likely that these metals weer forged into goods sold to travellers on the road - possibly bridles, saddles, horse shoes and even jewellery and souvenirs from the journey.

Most importantly artefacts found at Sandy show its connection with a huge variety of places in the Roman world, Italy, France, Germany and beyond. Travellers may have left them behind and others may have been bought and sold here.

As with Roman Britain as a whole, Sandy’s Roman heyday was not to last. In the early fifth century as Rome was faced with threats from massed tribes, the last Roman troops were withdrawn from Britain. Gradually the Roman towns declined and changed. Germanic ceramics recovered from the Tower Hill area reveal evidence that new Saxon settlers were more prominent in the area and the mansio had fallen out of use. But it is still remarkable that almost 2,000 years ago, Little Sandy in the far-flung province of Britannia was connected to the entire Roman world.

Pottery found in Sandy shows the variety of pots used for cooking and eating. Picture: Martin ElveryPottery found in Sandy shows the variety of pots used for cooking and eating. Picture: Martin Elvery

Any groups wanting to book a tour of the collection should call Sandy Town Council on 01767 681491.

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