Roman Life in Chester’s Grosvenor Museum

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.   

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.

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

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

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.

The Newstead Gallery, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

The Newstead Gallery, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

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.

Model of how Deva probably would have looked in the Roman period, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Model of how Deva probably would have looked in the Roman period, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Now for the exhibits.  First of all, I always love seeing frescoes – particularly when they’re from England!  It’s nice that they’ve kept the original 1936 tag which says that this one was found “buried in the floor of one of the rooms of the Centurions block”.

Decorated wall plaster, late 1st century AD, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Decorated wall plaster, late 1st century AD, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Legion pride is shown in the next item – a terracotta antefix which shows a boar, the symbol of the local Legion, the XX Valeria Victoria.  The antefix is the vertical bit at the ends of a roof, covering the section where the two sides join, and as it was common for these to be decorative on large buildings, presumably this came from an important Legionary structure.

Antefix showing a boar, the symbol of the XX Valeria Victoria, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Antefix showing a boar, the symbol of the XX Valeria Victoria, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

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.

And how was the lead transported around?  Well, a lead ingot dating from AD 74 was found, weighing 81kg; there is a clear stamped inscription on the top which reads    “IMP.VESP.V.T.IMP.III.COS” – “made when Vespasian was consul for the fifth time and Titus was consul for the third time”. On the side says, “DECEANGL” – which shows that it’s from the territory of the Deceangli in North-East Wales.

Lead pig, 1st century AD, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Lead pig, 1st century AD, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

With the lead being so easy to transport around, it’s no wonder that it was used for everything at the fort of Deva.

Roman lead water pipe, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Roman lead water pipe, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Roman lead cremation urn, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Roman lead cremation urn, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Roman lead lamp holder, with terracotta lamp, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Roman lead lamp holder, with terracotta lamp, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

It’s always fun to find unique and random objects inscribed with writing.  Below is a brick which was used as a note-pad before it was fired in the kiln: the names are in different handwriting so it shows that three workmen were signing for their expenses “sumtu, iuniu, x iiii, maternu, sumtuaria, belletus” (Expenses, Junius 4 denarii, Maternus, expenses….Belletus).  It also goes to show how commonplace it was to be able to write – even if only your own name.

Expenses notes in Latin, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Expenses notes in Latin, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

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 oculist's stamp, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Roman oculist’s stamp, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

And below are a few other objects that I found unusual.

Fragments of window glass with a fastener, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England.  As you can see, the glass wouldn't have been transparent enough to see through.

Fragments of window glass with a fastener, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England.  As you can see, the glass wouldn’t have been transparent enough to see through.

Roman luggage labels, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Roman luggage labels, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Fragment of a Roman belt with buckle, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Fragment of a Roman belt with buckle, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Bone Lock with a sliding catch to secure wax tablets, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Bone Lock with a sliding catch to secure wax tablets, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

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.

A room of tombs, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

A room of tombs, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

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.

Male Gorgon, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Male Gorgon, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

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

Actaeon being attacked by dogs, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Actaeon being attacked by dogs, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Stele of Marcus Aurelius Lucius, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England.  The attendant boy is holding a severed head. Due to this head and Marcus' hairiness, it may be he came from a barbarian background.

Stele of Marcus Aurelius Lucius, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England.  The attendant boy is holding a severed head. Due to this head and Marcus’ hairiness, it may be he came from a barbarian background.

Cavalryman attacking a barbarian with pert buttocks, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Cavalryman attacking a barbarian with pert buttocks, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Detail from the Cavalryman killing a barbarian with pert buttocks, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Detail from the Cavalryman killing a barbarian with pert buttocks, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Stele of Sarmatian cavalryman, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England.  The Sarmatians were a nomadic people who lived in an area that's now south Ukraine/north Romania.  He is carrying a dragon's head standard which would have made an awful noise.

Stele of Sarmatian cavalryman, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England.  The Sarmatians were a nomadic people who lived in an area that’s now south Ukraine/north Romania.  He is carrying a dragon’s head standard which would have made an awful noise.

Detail of the cute Sarmatian cavalryman, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Detail of the cute Sarmatian cavalryman, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Stele of Flavius Callimorphus and his son Serapion, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England.  This stele is bit different from the others because it was found with two skeletons, a gold ring and a coin of Domitian.

Stele of Flavius Callimorphus and his son Serapion, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England.  This stele is bit different from the others because it was found with two skeletons, a gold ring and a coin of Domitian.

Stele of Caecilius Avitus, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England.  He was an optio - his duties included bookkeeping for the century.

Stele of Caecilius Avitus, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England.  He was an optio – his duties included bookkeeping for the century.

Stele of Sextus, son of Sextus, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England.  Those are two lions on either side of his head.

Stele of Sextus, son of Sextus, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England.  Those are two lions on either side of his head.

Stele of an optio, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England.  He was about to be promoted to centurion, but died at sea - the last section would usually read HSE, Hic Situs Est. Because the H is missing here, it indicates his body was never recovered.

Stele of an optio, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England.  He was about to be promoted to centurion, but died at sea – the last section would usually read HSE, Hic Situs Est. Because the H is missing here, it indicates his body was never recovered.

Stele of Marcus Aurelius Nepos and his un-named wife, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England. Space was left for her epitaph to be carved, but it wasn't done.

Stele of Marcus Aurelius Nepos and his un-named wife, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England. Space was left for her epitaph to be carved, but it wasn’t done.

Greek standard-bearer Diogenes, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England.  He was an imagnifier, which meant that he carried the bust of the emperor, made out of sheet metal and held up on a wooden pole with two handles.

Greek standard-bearer Diogenes, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England.  He was an imagnifier, which meant that he carried the bust of the emperor, made out of sheet metal and held up on a wooden pole with two handles.

View of tombs at the Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

View of tombs at the Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Sandstone head, detatched from a stele, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England.  Found in the 1891 excavations of city walls.

Sandstone head, detatched from a stele, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England.  Found in the 1891 excavations of city walls.

Stele of a woman, Curatia Dionysia, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Stele of a woman, Curatia Dionysia, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

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

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.

Strangely realistic seeming dude in a Victorian bathroom of the Period House, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Strangely realistic seeming dude in a Victorian bathroom of the Period House, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Some toys on show in the Period House, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Some toys on show in the Period House, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Art Gallery

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.

The Art Gallery, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

The Art Gallery, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Chester Castle by Moonlight, Henry Pether, 1853-1861, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

Chester Castle by Moonlight, Henry Pether, 1853-1861, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England

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: www.grosvenormuseum.westcheshiremuseums.co.uk

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 www.cheshirewestandchester.gov.uk whereas if you’re planning a long distance trip via train, the trainline have always been fairly reliable: www.thetrainline.com

 

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