The Wroxeter Chronicles: A British Pompeii

A British Pompeii

There are several “curious” similarities between Pompeii and Viroconium [aka Uriconium].

Pompeii was an ancient Roman town-city near modern Naples, in the Campania region of Italy, in the territory of the comune of Pompei. Pompeii, along with Herculaneum and many villas in the surrounding area…

Viroconium or Uriconium, formally Viroconium Cornoviorum, was a Roman town, one corner of which is now occupied by Wroxeter, a small village in Shropshire, England, about 5 miles (8.0 km) east-south-east of Shrewsbury.

At its peak, Viroconium is estimated to have been the 4th-largest Roman settlement in Britain, a civitas with a population of more than 15 000.

The cities were of similar size.

Archaeologists are intensely interested in the old Roman city of Uriconium, which is being uncovered in Shropshire soil.

The circuit of the city measured about three miles, and inclosed an area of 170 acres – that is, about twenty acres larger than Pompeii.

Excavations at Uriconium in Britain (New York Tribune)
The Classical Weekly – Volume 7 – 20 Dec 1913

As far as we can judge, the streets were more open and roomy than those of Pompeii, where they appear to have been very narrow and gloomy.

Uriconium; A Historical Account of the Ancient Roman City
Thomas Wright – 1872

With similar basilica.

It is a curious circumstance that, assuming that have correctly identified this building, the basilica of Uriconium was exactly the same length, 220feet, as that of Pompeii, and also, as we shall see further on, occupied exactly the position with regard to the forum.

But the basilica of Pompeii was eighty feet wide, whereas the interior space of that of Uriconium is only thirty feet wide.

Uriconium; A Historical Account of the Ancient Roman City
Thomas Wright – 1872

The basilica was laid out in the 120s and completed c 150.

The original surfaces received extensive wear, were patchily repaired, and finally replaced at some time after AD 270 with opus spicatum (herringbone tile floor) laid in most of the south aisle, the east and west ends of the nave, and in the centre of the north aisle.

At some time after AD 367, the basilica was refloored throughout.

The Baths Basilica Wroxeter Excavations: 1966-90
Philip Barker, Roger White, Kate Pretty, Heather Bird and Mike Corbishley
English Heritage – 1997

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Similar architecture.

Before leaving this part of the building, I will point out a rather curious resemblance it bears to a part of that of the public baths at Pompeii, which also was covered with barrel vaults.

Uriconium; A Historical Account of the Ancient Roman City
Thomas Wright – 1872

Similar graffiti.

The surface of the southern side of the wall of the passage described above was covered with plaster or stucco, and a little to the eastward of the pit an inscription was found, scrawled in large straggling characters with some sharp pointed instrument, such as a stylus, and closely resembling in character the graffiti, as they are termed, found on the walls of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Uriconium; A Historical Account of the Ancient Roman City
Thomas Wright – 1872

Curiously similar doctors.

In the autumn of 1862, in the course of the excavations in the extensive cemetery to the north of the ancient city, a grave was opened in which was found, among other small objects, a surgeon’s lancet.

The other objects, which had unfortunately been carelessly scattered about by the excavators before they were seen, appeared to have been inclosed, or at least a part of them, in a wooden box, the lock of which is remarkably well preserved, and has a portion of the wood of the box attached to it.

The third instrument, in this case, is a small spatula.

There can be little doubt that the example found at Wroxeter has been a case of surgical instruments closely resembling the one found at Pompeii, and among the small fragments of bronze gathered from the debris, evidently belonging to the other instruments of the set, was one which was clearly the head of the spatula.

The similarity of the shape of the handle of the lancet found at places so distant from each other as Pompeii and British Uriconium, and deposited there at periods the distance between which was probably not less than between two and three centuries, furnishes a curious example of the general uniformity of types through the Roman empire.

Uriconium; A Historical Account of the Ancient Roman City
Thomas Wright – 1872

And remarkably similar fates.

Pompeii and its inhabitants were buried under volcanic ash and pumice.

Pompeii….was mostly destroyed and buried under 4 to 6 m (13 to 20 ft) of volcanic ash and pumice in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

Viroconium and its inhabitants were buried under Dark Earth.

A layer of mottled-brown and black loam, possibly equivalent to the so-called dark earth often found in late Roman towns (Perring 1991, 78-81), was deposited over the whole of the west end of the nave.

The layer was generally smooth and had an undulating surface which had given the impression that this was a naturally accumulated, wind-blown deposit.

There were, however, significant large inclusions such as micaceous flagstone tiles, sandstone pieces, and tile pieces which could not have been wind-blown and which also showed signs of having been worn in situ.

Wroxeter Dark Earth

The layer was up to 50mm thick in places.

Opinion is divided as to its origin.

One view is that it was deliberately imported fine earth put down either as a surface or a make-up layer for floors above.

Another suggests that it was an accumulation of soil from various sources such as weed growth and worm action as well as some wind deposits, accumulating on a neglected surface, with larger stones and rubble embedded in it, perhaps loose material from the heavily eroded layers below.

In fact, the two views can be reconciled.

It is likely that the layer started out as a make-up dump, since scattered over the surface of it were small surviving patches of what must once have been a more extensive pebble floor.

The Baths Basilica Wroxeter Excavations: 1966-90
Philip Barker, Roger White, Kate Pretty, Heather Bird and Mike Corbishley
English Heritage – 1997

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The ruins and remains unearthed at Viroconium had also been burnt.

Remains of men, women, and children, are found everywhere scattered among the ruins, and the traces of burning are not only met with in all parts of them, but the whole of the soil within the walls of the ancient city is blackened by it to such a degree as to present a very marked contrast to the lighter colour of the earth outside.

Uriconium; A Historical Account of the Ancient Roman City
Thomas Wright – 1872

Abundant traces of burning in all parts of the site leave no doubt that the city of Uriconium was plundered, and afterwards burnt by some of the barbarian invaders of Roman Britain at the close of the Romano-British period, that is, towards the middle of the fifth century.

The human remains which have been met with in different parts, bear testimony to a frightful massacre of the inhabitants.

It would seem that a number of persons had been pursued to the buildings immediately to the south of the line of the Old Wall, and slaughtered there ; for in trenching across what were perhaps open courts to the south and south-east of the door through the continuation of the Old Wall, remains of at least four or five skeletons were found, and in what appears to have been a corner of a yard outside the semicircular end of the hypocaust first discovered, lay the skull and some of the bones of a very young child.

In the last of the hypocausts we have been describing, three skeletons were found, that of a person who appears to have died in a crouching position in one of the comers, and two others stretched on the ground by the side of the wall.

An examination of the skull of the person in the corner leaves no room for doubting that he was a very old man.

One at least of the others was a female.

Near the old man lay a little heap of Roman coins, in such a manner as to show that they must have been contained in a confined receptacle, and a number of small iron nails scattered among them, with traces of decomposed wood, prove that this was a little box, or coffer.

The remains of the wood are still attached to two or three of the coins.

We are justified from all these circumstances in concluding that in the midst of the massacre of Roman Uriconium, these three persons – perhaps an old man and two terrified women – had sought to conceal themselves by creeping into the hypocaust ; and perhaps they were suffocated there, or, when the house was delivered to the flames, the falling rubbish may have blocked up the outlet so as to make it impossible for them to escape.

The ruins of the Roman city of Uriconium, at Wroxeter, near Shrewsbury
Thomas Wright – 1877

The coins unearthed at Viroconium suggest it was destroyed between [about] 420 and 450 AD.

From these lists it will be seen that the mass of the money in use in the city of Uriconium at the time of its destruction consisted of the coinage of the emperors of the Constantine family, and, as most of it appears to have been very fresh from the mint, it cannot have been long in circulation.

It has been supposed that the dies of this coinage were kept in Gaul, and that quantities of it continued to be imported into Britain down to the time of the withdrawal of the imperial government, for they are found in abundance in all parts of our island formerly occupied by the Romans.

A more interesting class of coins are those to which, from their generally diminutive size, numismatists have given the name of minimi, and which were evidently in circulation, though not perhaps in large quantities, in Uriconium.

They are very rude imitations of the Roman coinage of the Constantine family, and, as they do not resemble the Anglo- Saxon coinage which soon followed that of the Romans and at first consisted also of imitations of the coins of the family of Constaiitine, they are believed to have been struck by the towns soon after the withdrawal of the Roman government, to supply the want of a small coinage.

They are found in the Roman towns in the south of Britain, under circumstances which leave no room to doubt that they are rightly placed between the coins of the Romans and those of the Saxons, and therefore they cannot have ranged over any long period of time ;'” and we are justified in concluding, from this and other circumstances, that the city of Uriconium was destroyed at some period between the withdrawal of the Roman government from the island and the commencement of the Anglo-Saxon period, that is, probably between about the year 420 and the middle of the fifth century.

It may be added that, with the exception of these minimi, no object has yet been found among the ruins of Uriconium which is not perfectly Roman in character.

Uriconium; A Historical Account of the Ancient Roman City
Thomas Wright – 1872

The latest coins, dating to 388-402, were found in the robber trench of the north portico colonnade and thus belong in Phase X, or Y at the latest, and sherds of amphorae possibly dateable to the very late fourth to seventh century were found in Phase Y on insula 2.

The artefactual analysis of the site (see chapter 6) shows that the inhabitants of post-Roman Wroxeter either continued to use Roman artefacts with little modification other than occasional repair, or were using artefacts made from perishable materials as replacements.

In artefactual terms, they are invisible.

The Baths Basilica Wroxeter Excavations: 1966-90
Philip Barker, Roger White, Kate Pretty, Heather Bird and Mike Corbishley
English Heritage – 1997

Click to access archiveDownload

Splicing the Wroxeter Time Line onto the Old Japanese Cedar chronology suggests the destruction of Viroconium occurred around 432 in the Roman Time Line.

Wroxeter Sync Calendars

And in the 11th century the ruins of the Roman Empire started to be recycled by the Second Roman Empire.

There is reason for believing that in the twelfth century, England was covered with the remains of Roman ruined towns and villas still standing above ground, which now became so many quarries of materials for buildings of a different description.

We have seen the superstitious feelings which prevented men from approaching these ruins, and especially from disturbing them, and it required nothing less than the hand of the church to interfere and break the charm which held the rest of society aloof.

The twelfth century was especially the age of building the great Anglo-Norman abbeys and priories, and it became the practice to break up the old buildings within reach to supply building materials.

From that time the Roman ruins were pillaged whenever a monastery or a church was to be built.

The ancient city at Wroxeter was probably one of the great quarries from which the builders of Haughmond Abbey, of Buildwas, perhaps of Shrewsbuiy Abbey, and other monastic houses in this part of the country, were supplied.

Haughmond Abbey

The churches of Wroxeter and the adjoining parish of Atcham still bear evidence to this appropriation of Roman building materials.

St Andrew - Wroxeter

At the time when this inroad was made upon the ruins, the ground, as explained above, was already raised several feet above the Roman floors ; and the medieval builders, finding plenty of material above ground, cleared away the walls down to the surface of the ground as it then existed, and sought them no further.

Buildwas Abbey

This accounts for the condition in which we now find these walls, for they remain tolerably perfect just up to the height of what was the level of the ground at the time the ruins above ground were cleared away.

Uriconium; A Historical Account of the Ancient Roman City
Thomas Wright – 1872

The nave of Shrewsbury Abbey

The Abbey Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Shrewsbury (commonly known as Shrewsbury Abbey) is an ancient foundation in Shrewsbury, the county town of Shropshire, England.

The Abbey was founded in 1083 as a Benedictine monastery by the Norman Earl of Shrewsbury, Roger de Montgomery.

Much of the original Norman 11th century building survives in the present Abbey church, notably the short thick piers in the eastern half of the nave and the remnants of the original transepts.

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4 Responses to The Wroxeter Chronicles: A British Pompeii

  1. Louis Hissink says:

    Libby’s Cedar chronology is based on radiocarbon dating of the oldest rings, but, the D18o data suggest the atmosphere has been affected quite a few times, making radio carbon dating a bit problematical. But there is one significant event – the ~600 one which I would link to the dark earth horizon and Pompei destruction. I’m not sure the Libby radiocarbon date is a useful benchmark.

    This suggests the dating of the Pompei event needs to be looked at, as well as other interpretations based on retro-calculation.

    But these are mere muses……..

    • malagabay says:

      Re: Libby’s Cedar chronology is based on radiocarbon dating of the oldest rings

      Libby’s Cedar chronology is based on a manual count of the rings.

      Libby states the manual count was then verified by radiocarbon dating.

      “Kigoshi counted the rings of this tree and verified the count by making 50 radiocarbon datings on them.”

      Libby way well have been “hyping” C14 dating because checking a manual count with a techniques that only provides an “accuracy of ±100 yr” really doesn’t make a lot sense.

      Arguably, Kigoshi used the manual count [in 1961] to verify the radiocarbon dates…

      • Louis Hissink says:

        Does’t make any sense actually, but such are the symptoms of mathematitus and radiotitus.

  2. Pingback: Dating the Dark Earth: The Cheapside Valentinian | MalagaBay

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