Rare Roman discovery found in Carlisle

Tyrian purple

A rare archaeological object - thought to be the only one of its type in the former Roman Empire - has been discovered in Carlisle.

Roman Imperial Purple - Tyrian Purple - paint pigment was found as part of the city’s Uncovering Roman Carlisle project.

A lump of a soft mysterious purple substance was discovered at a Roman Bathhouse (in the drains), within the grounds of Carlisle Cricket Club, during the 2023 excavation by archaeologists and volunteers.

The part of the drains it was discovered in related to a monumental building with a bathhouse built in the 3rd Century - during the time of the Emperor Septimius Severus.

The purple was tested with the support of British Geological Society and further analysis is ongoing with the Newcastle University.

Experts from Newcastle University showed it was organic and contained levels of Bromine and beeswax - this almost certainly indicates it is Tyrian Purple, the colour associated with the Imperial Court in the Roman Empire.

The ongoing archaeological project is delivered by a partnership of Cumberland Council, Carlisle Cricket Club, Tullie, and Wardell Armstrong LLP.

Frank Giecco, Technical Director at Wardell Armstrong, said:

“For millennia, Tyrian Purple was the world’s most expensive and sought after colour. It’s presence in Carlisle combined with other evidence from the excavation all strengthens the hypothesis that the building was in some way associated with the Imperial Court of the Emperor Septimius Severus which was located in York and possibly relates to a Imperial visit to Carlisle.

“Other evidence being an inscription stone to the Empress Julia Domna, the date of the monumental building - among the largest on Hadrian’s Wall - coinciding with Emperor Septimius Severus campaigns in Scotland, and an ancient source stating Septimius Severus was in Carlisle, and the high quality of the objects discovered at the bathhouse, granting of civic status to the local Celtic tribal capital at Carlisle; which in effect is the beginning of the city of Carlisle.

“It’s the only example we know of in Northern Europe - possibly the only example of a solid sample of the pigment in the fort of unused paint pigment anywhere in the Roman Empire. Examples have been found of it in wall paintings (like in Pompeii) and also some high status painted coffins from the Roman province of Egypt.”

Tyrian Purple is made from thousands of crushed seashells from the Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, or Morocco. It was phenomenally difficult to make and expensive and was worth more than gold pound for pound (three times as much in some sources).

It was most famously produced around the city of Tyre in the Eastern Mediterranean which gives it its name. Tyre is in modern day Lebanon. It was also produced in North Africa, and off the coast of Morocco too.

The Emperor Septimius Severus was from Libya in North Africa, and his wife Julia Domna was Syrian.

Tyrian Purple clad kings and emperors from the Bronze Age, to the Persians, to Alexander the Great, to Cleopatra VII, to the Romans and then Charlemagne and the Byzantines. Sometimes the dye was used on clothes, but it was also used to paint walls in grand public buildings, and the homes and properties of the elite (including walls of bathhouses).

Councillor Anne Quilter, Cumberland Council’s Executive Member for Vibrant and Healthy Places, said:

“This is exciting news for Carlisle and our wider area. Following the discovery of the two Roman monumental heads and the other precious items, the project is unearthing some fascinating and globally significant finds. More digs are planned, as well as the opportunity to visit the site and see the ground breaking work underway.”

The award-winning community archaeological dig, Uncovering Roman Carlisle (URC), is set to return to Carlisle’s Roman Bathhouse to discover more of the remaining mysteries of the site.

The dig at Carlisle Cricket Club will take place between Saturday 11May and Saturday 15 June.

Hundreds of volunteers have already contributed to the dig. Limited spaces are available for volunteers. No prior experience in archaeology is needed, just enthusiasm in learning about Carlisle’s past.  

The site will be active and open to the public between Monday and Saturday of each week of the dig. Tours of the site will be held between 10am and 3pm each day, groups over 10 are encouraged to contact us through the new website and make a booking. Schools are encouraged to visit the site - with over 600 pupils visiting in 2023. A small temporary exhibition will coincide with the excavation in the Carlisle Tourist Information Centre in May.

Uncovering Roman Carlisle has received funding from the UK Government through the UK Shared Prosperity Fund. Wardell Armstrong LLP alongside Cumberland Council, Tullie, and Carlisle Cricket Club would like to get as many people to visit in this incredible project as possible. Find out more on the Uncovering Roman Carlisle website

The funding aims to improve pride in place and increase life chances across the UK investing in communities and place, supporting local business, and people and skills. The project will allow members of the public to take part in the community excavation or visit free of charge.

The bathhouse is the largest known building on Hadrian’s Wall, with over 2800 significant finds, and hundreds of volunteers having been offered over 2800 volunteer places offered in past phases of the project since 2021.

URC has so far won four awards, three archaeological achievement awards from the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) and an award from the Society for Museum Archaeology for the 2023 exhibition. URC featured on the most recent series of Digging for Britain with Prof Alice Roberts.

Discoveries by The Diggers has been essential in uncovering over 2,800 significant finds. Among these; 550+ Roman coins from centuries of occupation, 300+ hair pins, Imperial stamped tiles (tiles literally fit for an emperor), North African style vaulting tubes for roof construction, hundreds of stunning glass beads, gaming pieces, even a rare Roman doll’s foot. Significantly, 70 intaglios have been discovered in the drains. These are magnificently carved gemstones which dropped from Roman signet rings when the glue holding them melted in the bathhouse heat. In 2023, two monumental and unique carved stone heads were discovered by a volunteer on their first ever excavation.