To ring in the New Year, this month we have chosen this Roman bell excavated in Ambleside.

This Roman bell has a simple hemispherical shape, with a horizontal line of decoration. It is likely Roman, as the remains of a fort are near Waterhead, though we aren’t sure exactly how old it is. It was excavated in 1911, two years before excavations began at the Roman fort site in Ambleside. It is of a shape and kind often found in military sites and could have been used on a horse’s harness or a wagon. A similar one is held in the Cotswolds Museum, excavated in Gloucestershire. Copper alloy was the usual material used.

According to academic research, simple hemispherical and conical bells are known from both Roman and post-Roman contexts and these are often difficult to date. Concentric line decoration and a circular cross-section, such as those found on this bell in our collection, can be found on bells from Roman contexts (such as artefacts found in Colchester), but also on 7th- to 8th-century bells recovered in Scotland Most English or Welsh finds of similar bells, however, can be recorded as probably Roman.

The Ambleside Roman fort was originally built from wood in the first century around 80CE. The stone remains visible today are from between 100 to 138 AD. A lot of the stone remains were used by the Braithwaite family to build their estate in Ambleside in the 1500s, which is partly why so little of the fort is still on site. The land was bought and donated to the National Trust in 1913, and excavations began that year, led by archaeologist RG Collingwood, son of John Ruskin’s secretary. They continued until 1920, with a long interruption during the First World War. Areas around the fort were investigated in the 1960s and 70s.

In Roman culture, bells could be used as protective amulets, hung at doors and windows to ward off the evil eye, or left in the graves of women and especially children as protective charms. Some Roman mothers would fasten bells to their children to keep them safe, though even in Roman times this was considered superstitious.

We wish our staff, volunteers, trustees, and visitors a Happy New Year!


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