Black History Month 2020: Fragment of a Mortaria

October is Black History Month in the UK, an event that has been celebrated nationwide for over 30 years. Originally founded to recognise the contributions that people of African and Caribbean backgrounds have made to the UK, it has expanded to include the history of Black people in general.

Those of you have visited our Museum will already know that we have collections from all over the world. Over the month of October, we’re going to take a closer look at some of the objects with hidden histories that aren’t told within the confines of our galleries.

Today we are taking as our starting point a shard of Roman pottery produced at Wilderspool in what is now Stockton Heath, Warrington.

During the Roman period Wilderspool almost certainly operated as a port on the River Mersey, importing raw materials and exporting finished manufactured goods across Roman Britain. Around the 2nd century AD Wilderspool was known for  its everyday pinkish-orange pottery – which was often decorated with a cream or reddish slip or glaze – and because this pottery is so distinctive it has been possible to trace where they were distributed to when they are discovered on other archaeological sites.

Mortaria made in Warrington have been found across Northwest England, North Wales and Southern Scotland.

A number of Wilderspool mortaria or ‘grinding bowls’ used for grinding of pounding food have been found as far away as Hadrian’s Wall in the settlements surrounding Carlisle. There it may well have come into contact with the first recorded group of Africans living in Britain.

Hadrian’s wall was built in the years after 120 AD by order of the Emperor Hadrian. It was intended to control who could enter the Roman Empire from the north and to defend against tribes from Northern Britain who could attack at any time. The 20th Legion, who passed through Wilderspool, were involved in building the wall while soldiers from all over the Roman Empire were later stationed in forts and watchtowers along its length.

Hadrian’s wall at Greenhead Lough (by Velella)

In 1934 Latin words were found carved into a stone that had been reused in a cottage in Cumbria indicating that a group of soldiers called the ‘Aurelian Moors’ had been stationed at the nearby fortress of Aballaba or Aballava (now Burgh by Sands) between the years 253 and 258 AD. The Aurelian Moors, named after Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161 to 180 AD), were from Morocco and West Algeria in North Africa and travelled to Britain to settle here with their families.

This makes Aballava the first recorded African Community in Britain.

Bust of Marcus Aurelius (by anonymous, CC BY-SA 3.0)