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Hello all,

What is the hard evidence to support the view that the exterior stone walls of Roman military installations were plaster covered with white render and red blockwork lines added? If this is the general view how long did this type of "decoration" last e.g. was it maintained over the complete lifespan of the establishment?

Would this method apply to Hadrians wall and the turrents, milecastles and forts?

Cheers
Quote:What is the hard evidence to support the view that the exterior stone walls of Roman military installations were plaster covered with white render and red blockwork lines added? If this is the general view how long did this type of "decoration" last e.g. was it maintained over the complete lifespan of the establishment?

Would this method apply to Hadrians wall and the turrents, milecastles and forts?

There is a good article by Paul Bidwell* on this very subject (and compare the one by Tom Blagg in the same volume, both being online - see below). Examples of rendering with incised lines and red paint are known from watch towers on the Odenwald limes in Germany (tower 10/22 at Vogelherdschlag), and in Britain on the amphitheatre at Caerleon and on a buttress of a retaining wall of a terrace at Swainshill near Kenchester. Such finds are the exception and depend upon unusual sets of circumstances for their preservation so you are never going to be able to tell how widespread the practice was or how assiduously it was maintained simply because of the vagaries of archaeological evidence. You could certainly argue that certain styles of walling that incorporated patterning, such as some of the Saxon Shore forts or the Byzantine rebuild of the late Roman fort at Qasr el-Hallabat in Jordan, go out of their way to use decorative techniques that do not imply they were subsequently rendered.

Rendering was actually essential for some types of Roman military architecture to work - clay-bonded stone walling, widely used in Britain in the 2nd century AD (although you can't tell it as surviving structures are usually consolidated with mortar; when part of the centurion's quarters I excavated at Chester-le-Street was consolidated a special mortar was used to look like clay) needed to be rendered in order to control the wicking of moisture within the fabric of the wall. If the wall dried out, it could crumble. It was a dodgy technique to use though - most of Hadrian's Wall was constructed this way to start and there are numerous instances of it having collapsed and requiring repairing (at Wallsend, just west of the fort; between the bridge and fort at Chesters; and on the north wall of Housesteads - repeatedly!), so in that respect it would have to have been rendered (although it was usually repaired or rebuilt with mortar in the Severan period, so rendering would have been less essential. What we might call 'white stuff' has been found at Denton (where the A1 Western Bypass went through the Wall) in front of the wall but it was not clear whether that was flush or ribbon mortaring or actual rendering. In the central sector of the Wall lime has been found under the wallwalk-height string course and on stones at Heddon but lime could leech out of lime mortar and so it is not absolute proof of the whitewashing of Hadrian's Wall.

A small part of the reconstructed curtain wall at Wallsend has been treated with all of the available techniques to show the options (whitewashing, rendering and painting, flush/ribbon mortaring) and a similar thing was done at the Saalburg.

Mike Bishop

*P.T. Bidwell, 'The exterior decoration of Roman buildings in Britain', in P. Johnson & I. Haynes (eds), Architecture in Roman Britain, CBA Research Report 94, York 1996, 19-29
Thanks Mike - a very thorough answer to my questions I will take a good look at the links - Im sure they will raise further queries!

In many of the illustrations of fort exterior defences in the reference books I own (and also on many of the reconstructed buidings/fort towers Ive seen across Europe) the stonework is displayed as a "natural" finish. So fundamentally are we being provided with an unrepresentative/borderline inaccuate visual view of Roman military structures? Are Roman structures/taste more garish than could have imagined? I guess its a little like the now recognised difference between medieval church interiors- which were in reality a riot of colour although perception in only recent times past of how interiors must have looked in medieval times had been shaped by victorian "modernisation" (White paint, visible stonework, unpainted statutary etc - all very tasteful!)

I would also be interested in hearing any thinking regarding the reasons behind the white render/red lines- I take on board the need to protect certain walls from the weather depending on construction techniques but would there also be an element of making a clear statement of intent for all to see ( here stands the might of Rome!!)?

cheers

Will
Quote:In many of the illustrations of fort exterior defences in the reference books I own (and also on many of the reconstructed buidings/fort towers Ive seen across Europe) the stonework is displayed as a "natural" finish. So fundamentally are we being provided with an unrepresentative/borderline inaccuate visual view of Roman military structures? Are Roman structures/taste more garish than could have imagined? I guess its a little like the now recognised difference between medieval church interiors- which were in reality a riot of colour although perception in only recent times past of how interiors must have looked in medieval times had been shaped by victorian "modernisation" (White paint, visible stonework, unpainted statutary etc - all very tasteful!)

As I indicated in the earlier answer, given the amount of evidence we have, it is difficult to assess just how widespread the practice was and how assiduously it was maintained once applied. Roman (and indeed classical) tastes were much more polychrome than ours have tended to be until comparatively recently, when external colour has started to make a bit of a comeback (the Victorians had no objection to highly coloured interiors, of course). Evidence suggests that major public buildings, statuary, funerary monuments were all painted to the point of being gaudy. It is modern or Victorian taste that likes to think of the Parthenon as a honey-coloured ruin rather than the explosion-in-a-paint-factory that it probably was.

The arguments, heartache, and worry that go into reconstructions (whether on paper, digital, or in the round) belie the simple statement of the structure. Hence the reconstructed section of Hadrian's Wall curtain wall at Wallsend has that small patch showing other possible finishes, a little bit of bet-hedging, perhaps.

Quote:I would also be interested in hearing any thinking regarding the reasons behind the white render/red lines- I take on board the need to protect certain walls from the weather depending on construction techniques but would there also be an element of making a clear statement of intent for all to see ( here stands the might of Rome!!)?

The principal reason is simple - the ancient world loved to pretend things weren't quite what they really were. A structure made of large ashlar masonry is much more impressive than one made out of coursed dressed rubble (as virtually every Roman military structure in Britain was) so once rendered it is an easy matter to inscribe pseudo-joints and highlight them with paint. However, the potential visual impact of such a process has not been lost on modern scholars, as it was doubtless apparent to the Romans. That's one reason why the whole Hadrian's (White) Wall theory drew such attention, but you only have to compare it with freshly dug Bronze Age barrows in the chalk uplands of southern England, which were positioned to make the maximum visual impression, on the skyline and dazzlingly white. If you've got it, flaunt it ;-) )

Mike Bishop