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An Honorable Discharge [Jul. 22nd, 2017|04:24 pm]
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Towards the end of a cold February day in 2016, Mark - also known as 'Whitney' - Houston's metal detector gave "a perfect tone" (whatever that may be) indicating the presence of an interesting quantity of metal at an interesting depth. He dug it out carefully, although his first thought when he saw it was "what a stupid place to discard an old motorcycle battery!" - a little stack of plates of metal. But he took it home, and started - very carefully - to clean it up, setting the washed plates on the windowsill to dry. It happened that the light caught the wet surface in such a way that he could see writing on them, and what's more, he could see enough to recognise that the writing was Latin.

The pictures on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database give an idea of what it looked like at the time, and the bit that really impresses me is that armed with this, the internet and a network of other metal detectorists, he was able to identify what he had found, to the point that when he contacted the PAS, he was able to say "I think I've found a Roman diploma."

[personal profile] durham_rambler and I spent Thursday afternoon at the Archaeology Museum on Palace Green learning more about what we are now calling 'the Lanchester diploma'. (The Northern Echo reports on the event, and has a couple of pictures.) A Roman military diploma was the discharge document given at the end of a service career in the auxiliary forces, stating that the bearer had earned Roman citizenship and the right to marry. They are not exactly common, but they are a known thing (there's a website about them). The one that Mark found near Lanchester is exceptional because it is unusually complete, and because it was earned awarded for service in the navy, not the army. This one belonged to a Briton called (as transcribed by Professor Roger Tomlin, transcribing the best guess of a Roman scribe) Velvotigernos who had served 26 years (you had to serve a year longer in the navy than in the army, for reasons unknown) with the German fleet. Was he returning to the place he was born? That's plausible, though we don't know: the Latin name of the Roman fort at Lanchester is Longovicium, which might mean 'Place of the Ship Fighters': this makes it awfully tempting to build on that connection. The diploma has only begun to tell its story.

One thing I loved is that this is a legal document whose form is a sort of fossilised memory of an earlier medium. It's a transcript of an original kept in Rome (and long lost), and it's made as if it were copied from a wax tablet. You take two wax tablets, and you inscribe your document in full, using one side of each of them. But someone might tamper with this, so you copy the essential elements onto the other side, and then you bind the tablets together, so that the inner, shorter text is concealed, and you seal it shut like that. This diploma is two little sheets of copper alloy (each of which has been broken in four - another mystery. It might have been folded, but not necessarily) with the full text on the outer faces and a condensed version on the inner faces. This photo clearly shows the holes, which would have been in the center of each side, through which a wire could be passed to bind the plates together. The lovely regular letters have been formed using a stylus, just as if the scribe were writing on wax tablets: if you use the zoom feature on the images on the PAS site, you can see the stylus marks quite clearly.

This entry cross-posted from Dreamwidth: comments always welcome, at either location.