Learning from the Ancient Romans | MBC Arts Wellbeing

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About the project

Who were the Romans?

Hadrian’s Wall

Vindolanda Fort and Museum





Wax Tablet Making


About the project

‘Learning from the Ancient Romans’ is a project based in Sunderland, led by MBC Arts Wellbeing. Using the lens of the ancient Romans who inhabited Britain, we hope to lead the participants through a journey of learning and discovery.

This project began with a series of outings to the ruins of Hadrian’s Wall – the ancient barrier that divided Roman–England from the ‘barbarians’ in Scotland. At the heritage site, our participants followed in the Roman footsoldiers’ footsteps and marched up to one of the mile castles. This walk was guided by Kevin, a historian and Roman expert from Ancient Britain. From there, they explored Vindolanda – the ancient Roman fort – where they learned about what it took to live in the Roman era.

The outings to Hadrian’s Wall and Vindolanda fort were followed by a series of Roman-inspired workshops, covering activities that the Romans would have performed daily. Many of these activities explored skills that are often taken for granted, while the others provided participants with hands-on ‘Roman experiences’ that would have otherwise been less easy and a ordable to access.

These workshops include learning how to repair clothes and make garments, cooking using leftovers and sustainable materials, creating ceramic pots and gurines, crafting reusable wax writing tablets, and more.

This whole project is devoted to the goal of developing the skills of its participants, whilst enabling them to improve wellbeing, make new friends and bridge a connection to their heritage.

Who were the romans?

The ancient Romans were a people who lived between 625BC and 476AD – that's over a thousand years! Their empire began in the Italian capital of Rome, hence the name 'Romans'. It spanned over 5 million square kilometres, from the Middle East to Britain.

The Romans were ruled by a series of emperors – some of whom you may have heard of – from the conniving Julius Caeser to the brutally e cient Trajan, and to the morally questionable Nero who saw the Great Fire of Rome and the Briton's rebel.

The ancient Romans were innovative and successful, widely known as being one of the greatest empires of all time. They successfully conquered and controlled a large portion of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Their success can be attributed to their willingness to learn from the people they conquered, collecting knowledge and adopting new skills and technology as they surged outward.

The ancient Roman’s willingness to learn from other cultures has inspired the creation of this project. By emulating the Romans’ ability to adopt other ideas and cultures, we hope to introduce our participants to di erent ways of thinking about themselves and their cultures in relation to not only geography and history, but also society and ecology.

Marble head of Julius Caesar © The Trustees of the British Museum. Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Hadrian's wall

The project began with a walk-up to a wall. However, this wasn’t just any wall. This was Hadrian’s Wall, named after the emperor who ordered its creation – Emperor Hadrian.

Emperor Hadrian (76-138 AD) ruled the Roman empire from 117 to 138 AD, and is often seen as the third of the ‘Five Good Emperors’. He followed on from Emperor Trajan, taking over a powerful and wide empire. Nevertheless, all was not easy during his time as emperor.

Hadrian presided over part of the long and bloody Roman occupation of Britain and, after struggling to wrestle control from the native warriors of Britain, ordered the building of an 80-mile wall, from sea to sea, to (in his words) ‘separate Romans from the “barbarians” to the north’.

This wall, which would go on to be named Hadrian’s Wall, can still be seen to this day. It marks the division between the edges of the ancient Roman empire and what is now modern-day Scotland. Along the walls are a series of small forts known as mile castles, named as such because they sat approximately one Roman mile (i.e. 0.92 modern miles) distance from each other across the span of the wall.

This part of the project began with a guided tour up to Milecastle 42 near Caw eld Quarry, which was led by Roman historian Kevin from Ancient Britain. Here, the participants were able to get in touch with their heritage by walking in the footsteps of their ancestors and learning how they lived, all while taking in the beautiful scenery and fresh air.

Vindolanda Fort and museum

Following directly on from the hike to Hadrian’s Wall, the participants were then taken to Vindolanda Fort, one of the largest and most complete Roman forts in Britain.

Vindolanda, meaning white elds or lawns in Latin, is a substantial and historically signi cant ancient Roman fort. At the site itself is a museum housing many of the artefacts excavated from the fort. The museum is run by the Vindolanda Charitable Trust, which was established in 1970, shortly before the discovery of the famous Vindolanda writing tablets in 1973.

At Vindolanda, the participants were given the chance to explore the breadth of Roman history at their own pace, walking between the ancient ruins and the wooden recreations. In the museum, they saw many of the uncovered items of the Roman times – from everyday items such as tools and combs to jewellery, and from other adornments all the way to a vast array of ancient weapons and armour.


In the following weeks, the participants were invited to join in a series of physical arts and crafts workshops. The rst of these was blacksmithing.

Blacksmithing is the art of forging blazing pieces of metal, usually iron or steel, into functional and decorative pieces of metalwork. This is usually achieved through a process of heating, hammering and dousing of the metal. By hammering the metal, you contort its shape, elongating and attening sections to work it into whatever shape you need.

Through the workshops at MBC, the participants were taught to make two di erent pieces of metalwork: nails and caltrops. The process was guided by veteran smithy, Darren Witty of The Witty Smith CIC.

In this blacksmithing workshop, the participants would learn about the history of blacksmithing and how that relates to the Romans.


The trusty nail may seem like a very ordinary object to be making, as they’re relatively cheap and abundant. Yet, this wasn’t necessarily the case for the Romans. While we can bene t from industrial developments such as mass production, the Romans had to make each item one by one. The whole process can be quite challenging for a beginner. Fortunately, we had Darren from The Witty Smith to o er his guidance.

The process began by repeatedly heating and hammering a strip of metal, rotating as needed, to create a shape roughly resembling a nail. From there, the point was fashioned and the head was attened to create the signature nail shape we all know.

The process took about twenty minutes per participant and took quite a bit of physical e ort. When considering this, it's amazing to think that blacksmiths of the ancient Roman times would create hundreds of nails exactly like this per day!


Caltrops were a form of Roman trap, a small pointed piece of metal designed to always land with a spike facing upward. Because of this, these were predominantly used by the Romans to injure the cavalry and footmen of their enemies in the midst of battle. Simply throw a few of these in front of your charging enemies and you’ll quickly slow them down.

As barbaric as the caltrop is, it does represent an important part of Roman blacksmithing history, and it is a relatively straightforward object to make. As such, the participants also learned how to make a caltrop.


Ceramics aren’t just pretty objects you keep on the shelf, they can also be very useful. They certainly had many practical purposes to the Romans, from everyday haulage to long-term storage. Not only that, ceramics is a craft that has very much stood the test of time. Recent advancements have made making ceramics a bit easier, but the core process of shaping and ring the clay has changed very little.

In this workshop, we learned how to make pots using coiling and pinching, as well as small e gies of everyday things that were used to wish for blessings from the gods.

Pinch pots and coil pots

Pottery is one of the many functional forms of ceramics. Pots can be used for the storage and transportation of goods. There are many ways of creating pots, with some involving more advanced techniques than others.

Coil pots are pots constructed of long, thin 'sausages' of clay that have been coiled together and layered on top of one another. This develops a basic structure which is then later smoothed, re ned and decorated before being red in the kiln.

Pinch pots are similar to coil pots, in that they start with a relatively rough form which is later re ned. However, where coil pots start with long lengths of clay, pinch pots start with a ball of clay which you slowly pinch the sides outward. Starting by pushing your thumb into the centre of the clay ball, you pinch and rotate, pinch and rotate, and repeat until you develop the shape you intend to create.

While both these techniques take time and e ort to master, we think our participants made a great go of it!

Decorative e gies

Not all ceramics served a direct function – some of them were decorative, while others o ered some spiritual and superstitious comfort.

Many Romans would often carry around small clay e gies that were representative of the aspects of life in which they wished to gain fortune from the gods. Examples of these wishes may revolve around harvest, wellbeing, fertility, and success in battles, to name but a few.

Through this workshop, we asked participants to create an object representing something on which they might wish for more fortune.


The art of cooking has changed a lot since the days of the Romans. Advancements in technologies have led us to new methods of creation and di erent unique mixtures of avours. Back in the Roman times, our ancestors would have used di erent combinations of herbs and spices than our contemporary palette is used to. They certainly seemed to be a fan of aniseed, cumin and sh oil, unlike many people nowadays.

Through the workshops organised by MBC Arts Wellbeing, participants were invited to learn more about Roman cooking, and contemporary spins on dishes the Romans may have eaten.

To give us further insight into a dish the Romans may have eaten, food historian Jane prepared a particularly interesting dish called ‘Cassium of Pear’, a dish made of pears cooked in honey, baked in eggs and more honey with an addition of cumin, sh oil and aniseed. Having tried the dish, perhaps it’s safe to say that we’d all be quite happy for it to remain in the times gone by.

If those don’t sound quite to your taste, why not try making these Roman-inspired dishes, as taught by food historian Jane Sammells?

Quick and Easy Apple Chutney

Prep 20 mins, cook 40 mins, ready in 1 hr 10 mins. Makes 500ml.


• 750g cooking apples, peeled, cored, and chopped

• 375g light brown sugar

• 3 tbsp lemon juice

• 250g raisins

• 1 medium onion, chopped

• 1 tsp mustard seeds

• 1 teaspoon ground ginger

• 1/2 teaspoon salt

• 350ml cider vinegar


1. Combine all ingredients in a large heavy pan.

2. Bring the mixture to the boil over medium heat, then simmer uncovered, stirring frequently for 30-40 minutes until thick and pulpy.

3. Remove from the heat, leave to cool and transfer to sterilised jam jars and seal.

Cheese Scones


• 175g self-raising our

• Pinch of salt and pepper

• 1 teaspoon mustard powder

• 25g margarine or butter

• 75g cheese, grated

• 1 egg

• 15ml milk


1. Heat oven to 225°C, 425°F or Gas 7

2. Mix our and seasonings and rub in margarine or butter.

3. Stir in cheese, saving a little for the top of scones.

4. Mix egg with milk and add to the dry ingredients. (Save a little to brush top of scones)

5. Turn out onto a oured surface and roll or pat the mixture until it is 1-2 cm thick.

6. Cut into 8 triangles, place onto baking tray lined with parchment paper (to save on washing up!)

7. Brush the tops with egg and milk mixture, sprinkle with left-over cheese and bake for about 10-15 minutes.

Notes: You can use any leftover cheese. This is the basic recipe. It takes a lot of beating, but you could add 25g olives, cooked bacon, onion, chives or a few chilli akes .

Red Pepper and Broccoli Frittatas


• oil

• a large pinch chilli akes (optional)

• 2 red peppers

• 1 sliced onion

• 300g sliced long-stem broccoli, halved, blanched for 3 minutes and drained

• 6 eggs, beaten

• 4 tbsp water

• Salt and pepper

• to-serve salad


1. Heat 1 tsp oil in an ovenproof frying pan and add the chilli akes (if using) and peppers and onions, cook for 5-10 minutes until the peppers and onions have softened, but not browned.

2. Add the broccoli and cook for a further 5 minutes.

3. Whisk the eggs and water together, and season well with salt and pepper.

4. Add the egg mix, pulling in the sides with a wooden spoon until the edges start to set.

5. Put under a hot grill for 5 minutes until the egg has pu ed, turned golden brown and set.

Green Frittatas


• 80g spinach (fresh or frozen)

• 75g frozen peas

• 4 eggs

• 2 tsp olive oil

• 2 rashers streaky bacon, thinly sliced

• 1 clove garlic, thinly sliced

• 1/2 red chilli, deseeded and thinly sliced (optional)

• 35g mature cheddar

• Grated salt and pepper


1. Put the spinach into a colander and pour over 1/2 a kettle of just-boiled water to wilt.

2. Leave until cool enough to handle then squeeze as much water as possible.

3. Use scissors to chop it as nely as you like.

4. Put the peas into a small pan, pour over enough water to cover, boil for 2-3 minutes, then drain.

5. Mash peas roughly with fork or potato masher

6. Whisk the eggs with 3-4 tablespoons of water.

7. Season well with salt and pepper.

8. Heat the oil in a small non-stick, ovenproof frying pan and fry the bacon for 5 minutes until crisp.

9. Add the garlic and chilli, and cook for 2 minutes, then tip in the spinach and peas.

10. Add the egg mixture and stir to cover and mix in peas and spinach.

11. Cook gently for 3-5 minutes until the bottom is lightly golden.

12. Sprinkle with the cheddar and put under the grill for 2-3 minutes until cooked through and golden on top.


Sewing is one of the great basic life skills that’s sometimes overlooked. Whether you've ripped a hole in your trousers or want to create something entirely of your own design, there's no getting around the necessity of this skill. Yet, many people nowadays don't know the rst thing about sewing.

In the Roman times, it would have been important to know how to sew. While we are fortunate now to have ready access to clothing, the Romans weren't so lucky. Any clothing they had would have been well cared for and repaired when needed to ensure it lasted. The Romans, on average, were time-rich and resource-poor (much the opposite of us today), so would have understood the importance of caring for their garments.

Hand warmers and draft excluders

The rst objects the participants made were hand warmers and draft excluders. Part of the project was to create an understanding of how materials can be reused and repurposed. As such, the participants were asked to bring in old clothing that could be reused to create hand warmers and draft excluders.

By cutting, reshaping and stitching the old garments into something functional, they were not just learning new skills and ways of working, but also creating objects that can be used to bene t their lives at home.

Roman tunic

When thinking of the average Roman, many people may have a similar image in their mind: someone walking around the lovely, sunny climate of the Mediterranean wearing a tunic or toga. While this might have been true for the warmer areas of the world, in the far North, where the Iron Age warrior of ancient Britain lived, the Romans had to adapt to local ways of dressing just to stay warm. Fortunately, we don't need to worry about that.

In this workshop, the participants worked together to create a Roman-inspired tunic from large lengths of cloth, much in the same way that these would have been created in Roman times. They began by drawing measurements onto the fabric, following paper guides to create the right size and shape. These were then cut out and stitched together to create the basic form of the tunic, which was then altered to t neatly.

Following these steps, the participants were able to learn the basics of how they might go about creating their own clothes.

Wax Tablet Making

Nowadays, if you need to write something down, you can reach for a notebook, a tablet or even your phone, but the Romans didn't have those luxuries. The Romans lived day-to-day with limited resources, and out of necessity, they had to discover ways to be clever with what they had. Through this process of discovery, they created a renewable form of writing implement – the wax tablet.

The wax tablet is a simple creation. It resembles a wooden box lled to the brim with molten wax. This wax is allowed to harden to create a solid, but malleable surface. The tablets are simple enough to use, simply scratch whatever you wish to write into the surface of the wax. When you're done, reheat the surface to erase it, then reuse it. Repeat ad nauseam.

How to make your own Roman-inspired wax tablet


• Balsa wood

• A thin sheet of plywood (3mm)

• Wood glue

• A small amount of clay

• Wax pellets


• Cutting mat

• Craft knife

• A pot to heat the wax up in

• Sandpaper (120 grit preferable)


1. Cut the plywood to roughly the size of an A6 piece of paper. You can cut it larger if you wish, but you will need more wax and balsa wood.

2. Measure the balsa wood against the plywood rectangle and cut four strips of the balsa wood to create a border around the outside of the plywood. Each piece should be the same length as a side of the plywood minus the width of the balsa wood.

3. Once you have prepared your balsa wood, glue each strip down around the outside using the wood glue so that each strip butts up against the next strip.

4. Wait for the glue to dry completely. If possible, clamp the balsa wood strips down so they don’t slip.

5. Once the glue has dried and is rmly attached, sand the outside edges of your wax tablet to remove any sharp corners.

6. Once the corners are smooth, press a small amount of clay along the inside seam of the tablet, where the balsa wood meets the plywood. This is to prevent any leaks later, so make sure to seal it thoroughly.

7. Heat the wax pellets until they have melted completely. The wax will be very hot, so be careful not to scald yourself.

8. Once the wax has melted, transfer some of the wax into a pourable container. Lay your tablet at on a table, balsa wood side up, and carefully pour the wax into the centre.

9. Allow the wax to dry completely, this may take an hour or so. The wax will change from clear to opaque as it dries. Try not to disturb or touch it during the process, so that your tablet can dry at.


The funding for ‘Learning from the Ancient Romans’ has been generously provided by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Thank you to them and the players of the Nation Lottery. Without their support, this project would not have been able to go ahead.

We’d like to thank Kevin from Ancient Britain for his enthusiastic contributions to the project and the participants’ learning.

We’d also like to thank Jane Sammells for sharing her excellent cooking and food history knowledge, Alex Coyle for working with our participants to create an authentic Roman-inspired toga, and Darren Witty, the Witty Smith, for sharing his blacksmithing skills.

This project has been professionally documented by Art Matters Now in various creative forms. These include seven short lms, this publication and a 360-degree digital exhibition. To see more of Art Matters Now’s work, visit artmattersnow.org.uk

MBC Arts Wellbeing is a Sunderland-based CIC, dedicated to bolstering the wellbeing of people across the region through arts, crafts and other activities. To learn more about the work

MBC Arts Wellbeing provides, visit their website at mbcartswellbeing.com

Lastly, we’d like to thank all of the participants of ‘Learning from the Ancient Romans’ for making this project everything we hoped it would be and more.

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