Inscripta: the writing on the wall

For those who haven't yet been fortunate enough to hear of it, The Inscripta Project is an interactive website revolving around fifty Romano-British inscriptions. The aim is to “to teach students to transcribe, transliterate and translate the inscriptions”. Dominic Lowe asks some key questions of Lindsay Allason-Jones, who has been one of the main forces behind the Project’s development and is well respected in the archaeological world for, amongst other things, her expertise on Hadrian’s Wall and Roman Britain.

Firstly, congratulations on such an innovative project! What inspired you to create this website?

 This was something we had wanted to do for some time. When the Museum of Antiquities was open I used to offer a visit seminar called ‘Who’s afraid of Roman inscriptions’ using the Roman inscriptions on display to introduce students to Latin inscriptions and what they teach us. This was always very popular and we wanted to make it available to a wider audience, particularly once the material had been transferred to the Great North Museum. Nationally, there are few universities that have immediate access to such a representative selection of Romano-British inscriptions – the Newcastle collection represents the largest collection of Romano-British inscriptions in the country - so we felt an on-line resource such as Inscripta would provide access to a useful learning package for students at other universities and colleges in Britain and elsewhere.

 Why is it important to give such close attention to inscriptions?

 The Roman invasion resulted in the introduction to Britain of a written language for the first time. It is through this written medium, whether on large stones or smaller personal artefacts, that we can learn about the lives of named individuals. This puts the rest of the archaeological evidence into context and puts the people back into the archaeology.

 Did you find it difficult to acquire funding for Inscripta?

 Initially yes, but the aims of the Subject Centre for History, Classics and Archaeology at The Higher Education Academy’s Teaching Development Grants were a perfect fit with what we wanted to do.

 At what level of education are you aiming this website? Do you think, for example, that it could be used by students preparing for a Latin or Classical Civilisation A-Level?

 This resource can be used by secondary school children and undergraduates as well as postgraduates who are transferring into Roman Studies but lack a grounding in epigraphy. The site works best if students have an introduction to epigraphy in class and then use Inscripta to develop their skills at their own pace.

 At the moment you only have fifty inscriptions, taken from the Great North Museum in Newcastle upon Tyne. Did you find it difficult to acquire permission to use these and will you collaborate with other museums to create a more comprehensive collection?

 There was no difficulty in using the inscriptions for Inscripta as they are all owned by the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne, an organization which was keen to see its collection better known and better used. We don’t see this as the start of a larger corpus, as all the RB inscriptions are already covered in the various volumes of Roman Inscriptions in Britain; instead Inscripta should be seen as a freestanding learning resource. We have no current plans to expand it.

 What is it in particular that distinguishes the Romano-British inscriptions from others closer to Rome?

 The inscriptions from Britain provide an insight into an individual province and the people living and working there. In particular, Inscripta is made up of inscriptions from the frontier of Hadrian’s Wall and as such offers a comprehensive picture of the officers, other ranks and civilians in the area. Many of the units represented in the building inscriptions, altars and tombstones are rarely, if ever, mentioned on epigraphy closer to Rome and this is also true of a number of native deities, such as the Veteris, Antenociticus, Sattada, etc who only get mentioned on stones in the GNM collection.

 A great many of your building inscriptions seem to relate to the Roman Army. We know that the Army was trained to create forts quickly but did they do the majority of the building in Roman Britain?

 The men of the 2nd, 6th and 20th legions built Hadrian’s Wall and its installations. Elsewhere in Britain other forts and fortresses were built by 2nd Adiutrix and 9th Hispana. The building of towns and villas would have mostly been done by civilians. However, putting up an inscription was ‘a military habit’, that is the army liked to record their activities in a permanent medium, which is why so many of the inscriptions in Inscripta are military.

 If the project is a success, do you see any possibility of expanding into the other aforementioned Roman inscriptions?

 There are no plans to expand Inscripta. We hope it serves the purpose it was intended for and will be used by students worldwide for many years to come. On the whole, teachers prefer to know that a resource remains stable so they can plan their teaching around it well in advance.

 Would you have any desire to see an Inscripta that focuses on Greek inscriptions as well?

 That would be someone else’s job!

What made you dedicate your life to Classics?

I don’t know that I did – I’m an archaeologist who became fascinated with the Romans when I visited Housesteads Roman fort with my family at the age of five. I then had the great good fortune to become the Director of the old Museum of Antiquities and found myself working with this marvellous collection which includes most of the raw primary evidence for Hadrian’s Wall.

Do you think there is much more to learn about the Ancient World?

Every excavation on Hadrian’s Wall answers some questions but then finds many, many more that we hadn’t thought to ask. That’s what makes archaeology so fascinating and the ancient world so elusive.

With Classics being increasingly threatened in universities and schools due to financial constraints, what advice would you give to potential professors and school teachers?

Use inscriptions to engage students in the ancient world and ancient languages. They provide primary evidence of ancient lives in remarkable detail and through them students also learn where the modern languages of English, French etc had their roots.

And to potential pupils?

 The Roman Empire covered a large area of the then known world and once you can read a Roman inscription in Britain you can usually read others found elsewhere. The building inscriptions, tombstones and altars open up a world once inhabited by real people and reveal their worries and triumphs, their sense of humour and their tragedies.

You can find the Inscripta website at