Roman graffiti left at quarry in Gelt, Cumbria
Roman graffiti left at quarry in Gelt, Cumbria © Historic England
Roman graffiti left at quarry in Gelt, Cumbria © Historic England

Roman Graffiti to be Recorded at Hadrian’s Wall Quarry

Historic England and archaeologists from Newcastle University are working on an exciting project to record rare Roman quarry inscriptions in Gelt Forest near Brampton in Cumbria.

The ‘Written Rock of Gelt’ - Roman Quarry Inscriptions

These inscriptions, known locally as ‘the written rock of Gelt’, were carved by soldiers quarrying stone for Hadrian’s Wall. The series of inscriptions and graffiti made by Roman soldiers give us clues about the military units involved in the work, as well as the officers in charge of the quarrying.

One inscription, ‘APRO ET MAXIMO CONSVLIBVS OFICINA MERCATI’, refers to the consulate of Aper and Maximus, and dates the inscription to 207 AD, a period when we know Hadrian’s Wall had a major repair and renewal programme.

Four new written and figurative inscriptions have just been discovered including a relief sculpture of a Phallus – a Roman ‘good luck’ symbol. It was thought ‘The Written Rock of Gelt’ included a group of nine Roman inscriptions, of which only six were legible, however more are being discovered, some are new, including a carving of a Roman bust and other inscriptions which were previously thought to be lost.

See the list entry for Written Rock of Gelt 

Very rare insight

As well as this insight into the logistics and organisation of the Roman army when engaged in such a massive construction project as Hadrian’s Wall, the quarry inscriptions also tell a recognisable human and personal story - including what appears to be the carving of a caricature of one of the officers in charge. Such detail is incredibly rare, with this kind of evidence usually removed by later exploitation of such sources of stone. There are only a handful of such sites known in the whole of England.

The quarry was much enjoyed by local people and archaeologists alike but unfortunately access to view the inscriptions up close ended in the early 1980’s when the path to the site collapsed into the gorge of the River Gelt. Since then inspection of the condition of the inscriptions hasn’t been possible, although it does appear that they have suffered in recent years from the gradual erosion of the soft sandstone into which they were cut.

Abseiling down

The current project involves a collaboration between Historic England and Newcastle University, with help from Natural England and the landowner, Brampton Parish Council.

Archaeologists will be using ropes from above the quarry to gain access to the Roman inscriptions and will then use laser scanning to get detailed recordings. From this record, the latest computer technology will allow a three-dimensional digital model of the rock surface to be prepared, safeguarding the inscriptions for study into the future.

Once the data is recorded, the public will be able to see the inscriptions up close for the first time in nearly 40 years.

These inscriptions at Gelt Forest are probably the most important on the Hadrian’s Wall frontier. They provide insight into the organisation of the vast construction project that Hadrian’s Wall was, as well as some very human and personal touches, such as the caricature of their commanding officer inscribed by one group of soldiers.
Mike Collins, Inspector of Ancient Monuments for Hadrian’s Wall at Historic England
These inscriptions are very vulnerable to further gradual decay. This is a great opportunity to record them as they are in 2019, using the best modern technology to safeguard the ability to study them into the future.
Ian Haynes, Professor of Archaeology at Newcastle University

Further information

Look out also for further pictures of the archaeologists in action on our twitter account @HistoricEngland using the hashtag #writtenrockofGelt