Museum and gallery staff put their favourite artefacts on display
WEEK 2. The dog behind the Bastion. Verulamium, St Albans.
In 1931 Dr (later Sir) Mortimer Wheeler was excavating Verulamium, the third largest town in Roman Britain. The site lies close to St Albans in Hertfordshire and Wheeler was the first in a distinguished line of archaeologists to work on it.
During the third century AD, massive defences had been built around the town, and behind one of the huge bastions of the North West Gate, Wheeler found the skeleton of a dog.
It had been laid in a pit with other debris and Wheeler thought little more about it. It has been left to recent times and our passion for reconstructing the past for any more detailed investigations to be done. So now, probably for the first time, we have a dog from Roman Britain.
Verulamium Museum was lucky to have Lily Turner, a volunteer and scientific fellow of the Zoological Society to research the size and type of dog that would have been around at the time.
It seems that during the 400 years Britain spent under Roman rule, definite breeds of dog emerged. These varied from small lapdogs, which would have been kept purely as pets, to huge hunting animals for which Britain was famous.
Verulamium's dog falls between the two. It was about as large as a labrador but had the physique of a greyhound. Using the bones as a guide, the sculptor Anthony Bennett, who specialises in animal models, built a model in clay. This was then cast in fibreglass and coloured (although the latter was just guesswork). Model and skeleton are now on display together.
Apart from the study of animal bones, it is possible to learn about animals in Roman Britain from other sources, some rather unlikely. Large roof tiles quite often have paw or hoof impressions on them, where animals walked over the wet clay as the tile lay drying on the ground. Dogs were popular subjects in art, and feature on brooches and pots, for example.
This study of animals, both wild and domestic, is part of a growing interest in environmental archaeology. Dr Wheeler always said that archaeology was about digging up people, not things, and the museum he helped to set up is extending that all the time.
Brian Adams is keeper of education, Verulamium, St Michael's, St Albans, Hertfordshire AL3 4SW. Schools contact 01727 819341.