Roman Life in Chester’s Grosvenor Museum

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The Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

The Grosvenor Museum was opened in 1886 through the energy of the Chester Society for Natural Science, Literature and Art, which had been founded in 1871 by Charles Kingsley, the writer of The Water-Babies, who was a canon of Chester Cathedral at the time.  Joining forces with the Chester Archaeological Society and the Schools of Science and Art, they worked to raise the money they needed to build a local museum.  A large donation was made by the Duke of Westminster, who also handed over a plot of land on Grosvenor Street for the site.   

Greeted by a cross Roman solider at the Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

The museum consists of 9 different elements: there are two galleries which have exhibitions (I think they were both closed when we went in July 2017); a timelines gallery; the Ridgeway Silver Gallery, looking at local silver production; the Kingsley Natural History Gallery, with fossils etc; two Roman galleries; an Art gallery and a period home.

Newstead Roman Gallery

After a brief introduction to Chester’s history with the timelines gallery, we made our way to the Newstead Roman Gallery.  This has local finds which give a very interesting insight into the period.  It looks at the legions that lived and worked in Chester, so as well as the usual coins, pots and glass, there are some unexpected little curiosities.

Deva Victrix was a legionary fortress and town that was built by the Legio II Audiutrix.  As the Roman army advanced through Britain in the AD 70s, it was important to have regular military posts to ensure that the recently suppressed nasty Celtic tribes didn’t cause trouble.  Deva was strategically well-positioned, with the River Dee giving access to the sea.  Deva was rebuilt completely over the following few decades by the Legio XX Valeria Victrix, who were deployed to Deva from Inchtuthil, in Scotland.  It was rebuilt again in the 3rd century after problems with the ol’ barbarians, and the legion is thought to have remained there (in limited numbers) until the late 4th century.  Anyway in AD 410 the Romans left Britain, but the civilian settlement that lived off the fortress stayed behind after the soldiers left. It is likely that these residents used the fortress to defend themselves against the invaders from the Irish Sea.

The fortress was in many ways typical: it had barracks, granaries, headquarters, baths – but what makes it unusual is the fact that it is 20% larger than other British fortresses.  This has led scholars to speculate that Deva may have been intended as a base for an invasion of Ireland – that never happened – and ultimately as the capital city of Britannia.

A collection of items showed the creative and useful ways in which the Romans used lead – there was a mine in North Wales that the fortress at Deva could effectively control.  There was lead and silver in Flintshire, and an industrial settlement has been found at Pentre Halkyn, which shows the large scale mining that went on there.  The raw materials were then taken to Flint, where archeologists believe it was refined and shipped out.  The lead was so plentiful that it was used extensively in the fortress to make pipes, caskets, lamp-holders and even a urinal.

But for me, the star of the collection was the oculist’s stamp.  I’ve never seen one of these before and it was absolutely fascinating.  Basically, oculists would have travelled about, selling their remedies (collyrum), often in the form of small sticks.  These would then be stamped with the maker’s name and a short description of what their purpose was.  This stamp belonged to Quintus Julius Martinus (“Q.IVLMARTINISTACTVM” – ‘unguent made by…’ ) and has inscriptions for different ointments: DIAPSORICVM – an anti-irritant; PENICILLI – an ointment; CROCODES AD ASPRITVDINEM – a saffron salve for soreness.

Roman Funerary Monuments

The second room on Roman objects is a collection of funerary stele.  They were found in the 19th century in the city walls – Roman tombstones were good solid blocks of stone so graveyards turned into very useful quarries providing reusable material throughout the following centuries.  This has inadvertently led to the preservation of objects that could otherwise have been lost.  However, it also means that they are hard to date and the gallery didn’t bother trying to designate when they came from.

The stele are all in the local, slightly clumpy style, copying generic Roman motifs, but there are local twists.  The male gorgon below is not in the classic Roman pantheon, but another example is found in Bath – maybe it was an assimilation of a local god who retained his importance because there was no Roman equivalent who could take over.  Anyway, I speculate.  He’s cute, whoever he is.

Anyway, I’ll leave you to browse through the stele that I found particularly interesting…

I found this gallery well presented and very interesting.  Because some people find it hard to ‘read’ the images, there were drawings of what we were looking at in front of each stele, which I thought was a good touch.  It was also a well-lit display, so you could see the skill of the craftsmen but also the texture of the stone.

Period House and Art Gallery

At the back of the museum is 20 Castle Street, the Museum’s Period House. It was built around 1680 and its staircase with ‘barley sugar’ banisters dates from this time. It was saved from demolition by the then curator, and has been incorporated into the Grosvenor Museum since 1955. There are nine period rooms dated from 1680 to 1925.

The collection on display tells the story of Chester, through the work of local artists, but also through the paintings they collected.  There are also bits of sculpture and furniture.  There’s not much to it, although I’m sure the landscapes would mean more to those who are familiar with the region.

So In Summary

The Grosvenor Museum is, I would say, in many ways a fairly typical municipal museum, which got lucky because it has a good Roman collection.  It lacks, like most of the municipal museums I’ve seen in England, any real investment that could make it feel more significant and appealing.  Equivalent museums in Europe don’t feel so unloved.  That’s not to suggest that the museum workers don’t love their collection, it’s just that they obviously don’t have the money to really lavish attention on it in the way they could – or would like to.  It’s a shame.  I found an article where the curator talks about the extent of their collection that has to stay in storage due to lack of gallery space.  It’s at times like this that I really wish I was rich – I would totally set up a fund to help places like this fulfil their potential.  But I’m not, so I can’t.  But I hope someone does.

Practical Information

The museum has free entry.  Their website is pretty basic, but gives you the information you need to plan your visit:

To see more of Roman Chester, you have to go back into town a little.  Click here if you want to read my piece on it.

How to Get There

Information about local transport is available via whereas if you’re planning a long distance trip via train, the Trainline have always been fairly reliable:





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