Rusty Nail Tells a Tale 2000 Years Old

Arizona State Museum
Dec. 16, 2013

Arizona State Museum object A-33244 is a rusty old nail, and what a story this little object represents.

Arizona State Museum. Photo credit: Norma Jean Gargasz/UANews

This fall, Irene Bald Romano, the museum's deputy director, worked with four UA graduate students – Christopher C. Baker, Chantel N. Osborne and Jessica Sue Wiles of classics and Emilio Rodriquez-Alvarez of the School of Anthropology. The team has been "digging in storage"" at the museum, focusing their research attention on the Mediterranean collections – some 520 individually catalogued items and other items.

"We find sometimes that the stories that are most compelling are not about the objects themselves, but about the people who collected them," Romano said. "Sometimes what might be most compelling is the technology of the piece's manufacture, and other times, perhaps, the history of a single, simple object can be very revealing."

The iron nail (ASM A-33244) is from a fortress built around 82–83 CE by the Roman army in Scotland, Romano said. The fortress, located at a site called Inchtuthil, was constructed to keep in check the Caledonian tribes who were resisting the Roman invaders. When fortunes turned for the Romans only a few years later (86–87 CE) and troops were needed elsewhere – likely to fight the Dacians – the fortress was shut down. The Roman troops did not want to leave behind anything of use to the Caledonians, so they dismantled the fort, building by building, nail by nail, removing whatever they could of the ashlar masonry blocks and burning the wooden structures. All of the iron was deposited in a huge 12-foot pit and carefully concealed so this valuable weapon-making material would never be discovered by the local tribes.

The pit was discovered, however, in 1959 by Oxford archaeologist Sir Ian Richmond. He uncovered some 850,000 iron nails, spikes, and other iron objects – some 10 tons in all, handmade in a local forge, and representing a massive number of working hours. Richmond gave several thousand of these nails to donors who contributed funds for the excavation of the site and some to museums around the world.

The nail housed at Arizona State Museum came through a 1969 donation from Wesley E. Jenkins, a physicist from Miami, whose son (Edgar W. Jenkins, UA professor of physics from 1964 to 1995) was at Cambridge and knew Ian Richmond’s collaborator. Most of the fused iron had been sent to the Dalzell Steel Works, located in Scotland, where it was recycled. 

Read the full article on the Arizona State Museum site.

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