The majority of the Latin encountered in Romano-British archaeology is in the form of formal inscriptions on stone – building dedications, tombstones, altars and such. Other writing survives on small finds, such as potters’ names stamped on vessels, personal names scratched onto metal objects or ceramics or as prayers or curses written on metal sheets. Very rarely, wooden writing tablets sometimes survive, such as the famous assemblage from Vindolanda and the increasing number known from London. One other category of writing, but not a common one, is messages written on painted plaster walls. Messages and doodles are found scratched into the surface of the finished plaster, and can perhaps be seen as unofficial in nature – the actions of vandals, the bored, the mischievous or simply done by children. Messages painted onto the surface, though, because of the additional materials and preparation required, can be interpreted as more formal in nature (though not always entirely official, as the painted electoral slogans from Pompeii attest). Painted messages, however, are rare in Britain, making a small fragment found at the site of the palatial late Roman villa at Greetwell of particular note. See Ling (2007) for discussion of some other British examples.

painted plaster
Painted wall plaster fragment from the Greetwell villa site. The Collection: Art & Archaeology in Lincolnshire (LCNCC : 1912.301)

The fragment measures 53mm high and 48mm wide and sadly only records a few letters of writing, on three lines, each written with well-preserved brush strokes. The scored guidelines underneath each line reveal that the painter was intent on producing a neat and legible message, and suggest that it was not idle graffiti. The surviving fragment would appear to read:

N? I C [

] C R E

[] [] []

I would welcome the input of any Latin scholars who might wish to attempt to shed light on this text, but I fear that without knowing its context or the length of the overall message, it will remain an enigma. That it carries over three lines suggests that it formed part of a longer message, and one that was more carefully planned to fit a particular space or literary format.

The provenance of the find is significant. The Greetwell villa, on the eastern outskirts of modern Lincoln, was a 4th Century building on a grand scale, but one sadly destroyed at the time of its discovery during quarrying work in the 1880s. Only a few random finds and, thankfully, some drawn plans survive as testament to its scale and significance. It has been suggested that it was the official residence of the governor of the 4th Century province of which Lincoln was believed to have been the capital.

Plan of the Greetwell villa made by the quarry manager Mr Ramsden. The Collection: Art & Archaeology in Lincolnshire

This plaster fragment was one of many recovered at the time, but was not even singled out as an item of interest and to my knowledge has never been published or even recognised previously. Its context within the building is therefore unknown, but it perhaps formed part of some signage to guide official visitors, or even part of the publication of an official dictat or law, painted prominently on an interior or even exterior wall. Roman Colonies had their foundation charters prominently displayed (see for example the bronze tablets of Flavian date from Urso in Spain). Although much later, might this fragment represent the public presentation of something similar?


Ling, R. 2007. Inscriptions on Romano-British Mosaics and Wall-Paintings. Britannia Vol 38