Newspapers in the UK are starting to get agog over a recent find … the Telegraph seems typical:
New evidence from an archaeological dig has found that legionnaires wore socks with sandals.
Rust on a nail from a Roman sandal found in newly discovered ruins in North Yorkshire appears to contain fibres which could suggest that a sock-type garment was being worn.
Now scientists are examining the remains in the laboratory to see if it is true.
The fashion faux pas was found in a 2000-year-old “industrial estate” excavated as part of a £318 million Highways Agency scheme to upgrade the A1 between Dishforth and Leeming in North Yorkshire.
The unearthed site includes the remains of a water-powered flour mill used to grind grain and produce food for the soldiers, clothes, food remains, graves and pottery.
It also contains the evidence of the socks in 14 graves on the outskirts of the area.
Blaise Vyner, an archaeologist heading the cultural heritage team on site, said: “You don’t imagine Romans in socks but I am sure they would have been pretty keen to get hold of some as soon as autumn came along.”
Harry Mount (also in the Telegraph) writes a good accompanying column, but without giving the journalists a much-needed lack-of-research slap-on-the-wrist:
I can quite believe the story that Romans stationed in north Yorkshire 2000 years ago wore socks with their sandals, and so kicked off an unfortunate British fashion that’s survived to the present day.
Yes, the Romans were a fantastically tough martial race with great imperial ambitions. But they were also from the hot south; the Geordie weather of Hadrian’s Wall was not for them.
35 years ago, just south of Hadrian’s Wall, at the fort of Vindolanda, archaeologists found letters to and from the legionaries there – most of them hailing from Gaul. Like anyone far away from home, they missed their wives, and their food.
The letters talk fondly of Mediterranean food and drink: Massic wine, garlic, fish, semolina, lentils, olives and olive oil. When they can’t get their favourite food imported, they have to make do with local British fare: pork fat, cereal, spices, roe-deer and venison, all washed down with beer. Walk into your local pub – things haven’t changed much.
What really gets the legionaries down, though, is the cold of Northumberland. They are desperate for “subuclae” – or vests – and “abollae”, thick heavy cloaks. The most famous letter just lists the items sent from Gaul to one freezing soldier: “Paria udonum ab Sattua solearum duo et subligariorum duo”; that is, “socks, two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants”.
Socks, sandals and pants. Without them Roman Britain would not have lasted nearly half a millennium, until 410AD, when they packed their smalls and headed down south to warmer climes.
Okay … before we get to some more responsible coverage, let’s note that back in 2003, back when rogueclassicism was but a babe among blogs, the BBC had a report about a dig in London which began:
Evidence for what, by modern standards, would be considered a lack of style has been uncovered at a major archaeological dig in south London, where a foot from a bronze statue appears to be adorned with both socks and sandals.
Here’s a photo:
A couple of years later, when rogueclassicism was a bit more mature, the BBC also had:
The sartorial elegance of the Italians has been shattered, with news that woolly socks helped their ancestors’ conquest of northern England.
The evidence has emerged among archaeological objects found in the River Tees at Piercebridge, near Darlington in County Durham.
Among the items was an unusual Roman razor handle, made of copper alloy and in the shape of a human leg and foot.
The 5cm high foot is wearing a sandal with a thick woollen sock underneath. [...]
… here’s a photo:
Adrian Murdoch has responded to the present hype with a good post on other evidence for the practice: Roman socks and sandals
Dorothy King responds in a similar vein as I do, with some additional details: Socks and Roman Sartorial Sins ….
… and as long as we’re on the subject, we really should highlight the BBC’s responsible coverage of the current find, which is actually about a hitherto unknown ‘industrial estate’ which may have been home to a legion:
Archaeologists have discovered a Roman industrial estate near ruins which may once have been home to a lost legion.
The site has been excavated as part of a £318 million scheme to upgrade the A1 in North Yorkshire.
It is close to a fort at Healam Bridge, which might have been used by the Ninth Hispanic Legion, which disappeared some time in the 2nd Century AD.
The find includes evidence that the Romans may have worn socks under their sandals!
The unearthed site includes the remains of a water-powered flour mill used to grind grain and produce food for the soldiers along with clothes, food remains, graves and pottery.
Cultural heritage team leader Blaise Vyner said: “We know a lot about Roman forts, which have been extensively studied, but to excavate an industrial area with a mill is really exciting.
“We hope it can tell us more about how such military outposts catered for their needs, as self-sufficiency would have been important.”
Neil Redfern from English Heritage with the remains of a horse, found under a building. Image courtesy of COI Yorkshire & Humber
The industrial area comprised a series of large timber buildings, mostly on the north side of a beck, which powered the mill.
It would have supplied the fort with goods and provisions, probably processing meat and other food, as well as flour.
It could also have developed into something of a settlement in its own right.
There is also an indication that the Roman occupants may have worn socks. Rust on the nail from a Roman sandal appears to have impressions from fibres which could suggest that a sock-type garment was being worn.
Mr Vyner added: “You only have to look up the road to Catterick to see how garrison towns are serviced by local shops. Perhaps we have something similar here.”
Neil Redfern from English Heritage said that the discovery of the site had given a “real insight” in to the industrial processes used by the Romans.
“The time span of the remains uncovered illustrates how the site developed from a frontier fort and settlement to a more settled site with strong local economic role relating to the presence of mills along the banks of the beck.
“The complexity and depth of deposits were unexpected and the excavation team has dealt with them very professionally.”
Very little is known about the Roman fort itself, which is now a scheduled monument.
It only came to light as a result of geophysical surveys carried out in the 1990s in readiness for the A1’s planned upgrading. The line of the new road was adjusted to avoid the main site.
Gary Frost, Highways Agency project manager, said the excavation, which began in July 2009 and was completed this summer, gave experts a unique window on the past.
… they also have a video report at:
So the upshot is that we’ve known about the Roman socks-and-sandals look for quite some time; as for this new site, hopefully we’ll find some burials nearby which can tell us a bit more about the people who lived there.