In search of Vespasian Alchester
27 August 2003: the Alchester team reports the discovery of an inscription. My reaction: a mixture of excitement and disbelief - only one complete stone inscription and two single fragments of others have ever been found in Oxfordshire. Roman inscriptions are extremely rare in southern Britain, especially away from the big cities and fortresses. Is it possible that we have found another? All that is visible so far is an Xshaped decoration; the rest is still under unexcavated deposits which have to be drawn, and it is another day before we can start recovering what proves to be part of a tombstone - including the first and the family name of the deceased. Within the next two and a half weeks, another 19 fragments come to light, plus one from a second epitaph. Each new block reveals more of the puzzle, and, sometimes in oblique torchlight, the inscription is, bit by bit, deciphered. It is clear now that our team has found not just fragments, but virtually the whole tombstone; and not just any tombstone, but one which forces us to rewrite the history of the Roman invasion and conquest of Britain.
Where was it found? Alchester is a Roman small-town ten miles north of Oxford. A team of volunteers has been exploring this site since 1996, first under the auspices of the Oxford University Archaeological Society, then under that of Leicester, Oxford and Edinburgh Universities. Our fieldwork focused initially on a Roman military parade ground and marching camp near the later Roman town (see CA 157), and then on an annexe to a large military compound (CA 173). In 2003 we excavated the town wall near the west gate. This had been robbed out in postRoman times, except for two stones in situ and the wall's rubble foundations. It was here in the foundations of the later town that we found all the inscription fragments, smashed up to provide building material. Obviously, the town defences had been strengthened by a wall in some haste, probably not before the late 3rd century.
The archaeological context thus tells us little about the date of our tombstone - but the text does.
This text provides our first biography of any inhabitant of pre-medieval Oxfordshire. Our man, Lucius Valerius Geminus, had not been born here, though. He was a Roman citizen, as indicated by his three names and his voting tribe, Pollia. All citizens belonged to such a tribe. (These were not tribes in the usual sense, but artificial constituencies that had grouped citizens together to participate in elections. To vote, in what were by imperial times mock elections, you had to be in Rome, so the tribes were now little more than symbols of Roman citizen status.)
His birthplace, where the majority of people are thought to have belonged to the Pollia tribe, was a marginal community in archaeologycurrent 168 196