Be wary if you’re around Hadrian’s Wall this summer – it’s just received heavily-armoured cavalry reinforcements, and they’re on the watch for wandering Caledonians.
Earlier this summer my colleague Jim Wilson and went for a canter along the Wall, installing some of our star Roman objects in an innovative exhibition which runs the length of Hadrian’s frontier, from Wallsend in the east to Carlisle and on down the coast to Maryport. Called Hadrian’s Cavalry, it’s going to be a blockbuster this summer, and we’re pleased to be part of it.
Why is it so good? Cavalry were the showmen of the Roman army. They were paid much better than ordinary frontier infantrymen, and they lavished this wealth on impressive armour and harness for themselves and their horses. As a result, the exhibits are amazing. The show features old friends, such as one of our parade helmets from Newstead and another from Ribchester (on loan from the British Museum), but also material from German and French museums, and private collections, never seen in Britain before.
Most spectacular are the ornate helmets and masks worn in tournaments which recreated great mythical battles such as Greeks versus Amazons. Highly ornate shield bosses, leg protectors, and chest armour, all covered with protective images of the gods – this has to be seen to be believed. Horses were also finely turned out, with gleaming harness and ornate face masks (chamfrons). As well as our own leather chamfron from Newstead and its close cousin from Vindolanda, there are bronze chamfrons and other harness fittings on show.
Putting together one of these exhibitions is a major challenge – spreading it over ten venues makes it greater still. Lots of different bits of the museum get involved. For this loan our registrars sorted out the complex and challenging logistics, the conservators checked it was all safe to travel, the curatorial side discussed with the borrower what might fit their stories best, and our assistant curators packed them for safe travel. The packing is a work of art in itself – it should be exhibited alongside the objects!
The exhibition is not just about the military. There’s a nice little display in Corbridge which looks at the horse in wider Roman culture, and our terracotta horse from Newstead is on holiday there. It’s one of a pair which once pulled a model chariot, showing the range of uses which horses had in the Roman world. But it’s the cavalry who dominate this show – as they did 1800 years ago, a strike force on Rome’s northern frontier capable of ranging far and wide into hostile territory, and armed to the teeth.
So if you’re in the Wall area this summer, it’s worth a look. But the big event is a Roman cavalry charge – the first since the end of Roman rule around AD 400 – when a turma, 30 Roman cavalry horses, will take to the field in Carlisle on 1-2 July. Book your tickets now – it’ll be a sight to inspire, or terrify, depending which side you’re on …