Seven Roman altars at the Great North Museum: Hancock now feature animations projected directly onto the stone surface
|Credit: Tyne and Wear Museums
Historians often tell us to try and visualize the past as a colourful place – whether it be the bright colours of medieval clothing and statuary or the vibrant blues and golds found in the tombs of Antiquity.
Accordingly Roman Britain was also a place of vibrant hues – even at its most northern reaches. Apart from the deep red robes of the Roman legions, Pliny the Elder cited the orange, red and purple worn by priests and priestesses, while common dyes used in the Roman world included madder, kermes, weld, woad, saffron and lichen purple.
|The Roman Britain colour display [Credit: Tyne and Wear Museums]
But these colours weren’t just confined to robes and other clothing, the statues and buildings also offered a surprising palette – as can be glimpsed in a new project at the Hancock in Newcastle, which is revealing the colours encountered along Rome’s Northern frontier at Hadrian’s Wall.
The Museum has a vast collection of altars recovered from Hadrian’s Wall – many of them with dedications to the deceased and inscriptions to the Roman Gods – and seven of the latter now feature animations projected directly onto the stone surface to offer a sense of how brightly coloured the altars appeared 1900 years ago.
|Altars to Fortuna, Minerva and Antenociticus [Credit: Tyne and Wear Museums]
The project, called Roman Britain in Colour, is a collaboration between the Museum and Hadrian’s Wall Community Archaeology Project (WallCAP), working alongside creative studio NOVAK.
“We’re used to the look of sandstone altars and reliefs in museums but we forget that they were originally painted in bright colours,” says Andrew Parkin, the Museum’s Keeper of Archaeology. “The paint has been lost over the centuries but researchers have found trace amounts of pigment using ultraviolet light and x-rays.
|Altar to Minerva [Credit: Tyne and Wear Museums]
“These new projected animations really make the altars stand out and add greatly to the Hadrian’s Wall gallery in the museum. The team at NOVAK have done a fantastic job in creating the artwork and mapping the projections precisely onto the stones.”
The animations also offer some artistic interpretations of the altars and the gods associated with them. For instance, the altar to Neptune, Roman god of freshwaters and rivers, was found in the River Tyne. It depicts a blue underwater scene filled with fish.
|Altars to Neptune, Oceanus, Jupiter x2, Fortuna, Minerva and Antenociticus
[Credit: Tyne and Wear Museums]
The altar to Oceanus, god of the sea, is animated with seaweed, starfish and a crab, whereas the altar to Fortuna drips with bright crimson, perhaps suggesting a ritual using wine or the blood of a sacrificed animal.
Other altars with new animations are dedicated to Jupiter, supreme deity of the Roman pantheon, Minerva, goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare, and Antenociticus, a native British god only found at Condercum Roman Fort – present-day Benwell in the west end of Newcastle.
|Credit: Tyne and Wear Museums
“Roman altars are a great source for understanding the culture of the Roman Empire, but they can seem boring and uninteresting for people that do not know how to ‘read’ them,” adds Dr Rob Collins, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology and WallCAP Project Manager at Newcastle University.
“Working with NOVAK and the Great North Museum: Hancock, the altars come alive and invite you to look more closely at the artistry and information that they hold.”
‘The Roman Britain in Colour’ display can be found in the Hadrian’s Wall gallery at the Great North Museum: Hancock.