I often get asked what my favourite Roman artefact from Lincolnshire is. It’s a very difficult question to answer as there are so many wonderful objects and monuments to choose from, all fascinating in their own way. The pugio (dagger) sheath I’d like to discuss in this post, though, would definitely be well up there in my top 10. Although not a new find, it’s an amazing object and well worthy of being known about more widely.
Lincoln’s origins as a legionary fortress are well known. Founded at some point in the AD60s (see my earlier post on the Boudican revolt and the foundation of Lincoln), the fortress was occupied until c.AD72 by the IX Legion Hispana and then subsequently by the II Legion Adiutrix Pia Fidelis (‘APF’), who made some alterations to the defences such as adding towers and digging a new ditch. Lincoln was the II APF’s home until c.AD77/78 when they moved to Chester, mothballing the site before they left. Although the defences were left in place, the internal timber structures were dismantled and as much material as possible recycled for future use.
The fortress’ short active life (less than twenty years) is the blink of an eye archaeologically speaking, and although various excavations have defined the defensive circuit and ditches, our understanding of the layout of the internal barracks and ancillary structures remains fragmentary. The centrally placed headquarters building, the principia, is the best excavated structure, sited directly beneath the subsequent Colonia‘s forum at the modern St Paul in the Bail.
The dagger sheath was excavated in 1980 on East Bight, inside the eastern corner of the northern defences (Steane et al 2006). Here, among evidence of the dismantling of the timber legionary buildings, was found the largest assemblage of military fittings and equipment yet known from the fortress. Among the hinges, hooks and belt fittings from Lorica Segmentata, the edging and crest holders from helmets and various cavalry pendants and mounts was the dagger sheath, broken and, as with everything else in that deposit, intended for repair or recycling but for some reason left behind when the legionaries departed.
The significance of the sheath was not immediately apparent, as the iron was in an extremely corroded state (Mann 1981). The image above shows how the sheath has only been partially conserved, the corrosion products at the tip left in place for future analysis. It now serves to remind us how the sheath appeared when first discovered. Although the tapering form led to its identification as a sheath, it was only when it was x-rayed that the wonderful decoration was revealed.
The panels of silver and copper decorative inlay are extremely thin and fine, and the x-rays not only revealed their existence but enabled them to be preserved. Without knowing they were there, the conservators could easily have removed them along with the corrosion. The decoration takes the form of four main panels, two square with circular motifs inside, one rectangular, and one triangular (still mostly hidden beneath corrosion but visible on the x-ray). The two square panels each contain a circle, within which are five radiating lines. These represent palm trees, a plant with many symbolic connotations in the Roman world. It was associated with the god Apollo, with the birth of Romulus and Remus, and more generally with victory and immortality, making it an ideal motif for an item of military equipment (Saliola and Caprini 2012, 60).
I mentioned above that the sheath was damaged, and this can be seen most clearly from the rings used to attach it to a belt. Only one of the original four survives – the positions of the missing ones marked by both holes in the surface and gaps in the decorative scheme.
A number of other examples of pugio sheaths are known from Britain, and all vary in the details of their decoration. Fine parallels are known from places such as Hod Hill, Waddon Hill, Richborough, and Usk (see Saliola and Caprini 2012 for extensive illustrations and images of other examples). It is in the Rhineland, however, where the origins of these highly decorative weapons seems to lie. Although found across the Roman west from the 2nd Century BC, the Rhine frontier has produced a particular concentration of 1st Century AD examples, leading to the suggestion that it represents their main place of manufacture.
The Lincoln sheath is made of iron (as is clear from the corrosion), but that in itself is significant for dating and placing it into its wider typological context. The sheath is a ‘Type B’ (see Saliola and Caprini 2012), typified by the entirely iron construction and the use of silver and copper wire inlay (as opposed to enamel). It dates to the reign of Nero (AD54-68). Although impossible to prove, I wonder if the sheath represents equipment brought to the fortress by one of the c.2,000 soldiers Tacitus tells us were sent to Britain from Germany to reinforce the IX Legion after its losses in the Boudican revolt (for more on this see my post here). Perhaps the sheath was obtained by one of these soldiers before leaving Germany, only to become subsequently damaged and eventually caught up in a recycling pile some 15 years or so later. Pugiones are virtually unknown in Britain after the Flavian period (Scott 1985) and may have fallen out of general military use at that time. Perhaps the Lincoln pugio had simply become obsolete by the time the fortress was being dismantled?
The function of pugiones has been debated by scholars over many years. Was it a secondary weapon, to be used as a last resort or in extremely close quarters combat? Was it more of a general purpose knife, used around camp for eating, stripping bark from wood or any of the other duties a legionary would be expected to carry out while on active duty? People have even questioned whether it was a standard piece of equipment, perhaps instead being reserved for parades or something that only some soldiers chose to carry. Personally, I agree with scholars such as Saliola and Casprini (2012), that though any blade can be put to multiple uses, the pugio is clearly a stabbing weapon, not designed for cutting or chopping. It would have inflicted devastating injuries, as the willow-leaf blade (tellingly similar to the larger gladius) would have enlarged the wound as the blade entered. Tacitus (Annals 11.18) tells us of how the general Corbulo instilled discipline into his troops, executing one legionary for being armed only with his pugio as he dug a ditch. Clearly the pugio was deemed insufficient on its own to be a primary weapon.
The high levels of ornate decoration seen on sheaths are an interesting element of the debate. No other standard issue item of Roman military equipment carries such intricate decoration, and clearly such items could not be mass produced for every soldier in the army. As we do not find plain, undecorated, examples which might be considered ‘standard issue’, the decorated ones cannot be explained as being used by officers. Instead, the idea that they were examples of soldiers expressing their individuality in a military world otherwise defined by homogeneity is a fascinating one.
The lethality of the pugio is demonstrated by it being a weapon of choice for assassinations, most famously that of Julius Caesar. Suetonius also tells us that Nero and Otho used it in their suicides, and that attempted killers of Tiberius and Claudius both intended to use it as the murder weapon. Domitian kept one under his pillow in case of attack. The easily concealable but deadly weapon clearly had a role to play in civilian as well as military life. The pugio was such a symbol that Galba wore one around his neck like an amulet while suppressing an uprising, and it was used on the famous coinage minted to celebrate the assassination of Caesar alongside the freedman’s cap.
The pugio is therefore a complex and contradictory artefact, a vicious and brutally effective weapon stored in a finely decorated sheath, bearing imagery invoking the mythical founding of Rome and renowned as a symbol of political assassination and the violent transfer of power. The Lincoln sheath was an object doubtless valued by its owner but ultimately abandoned as scrap metal for recycling.
Mann, J. 1981. Small Finds: An ornamented dagger sheath. Lincoln Annual Trust 9th Annual Report 1980-81
Scott, I. 1985. First Century military daggers and the manufacture and supply of weapons for the Roman army. In Bishop, M. C. (Ed) The Production and Distribution of Roman Military Equipment. BAR International Series 275
Steane, K. et al, 2006. The Archaeology of the Upper City and Adjacent Suburbs. Lincoln Archaeological Studies No 3. Oxbow