Small lidded pots were used for a variety of goods from spices and food stuffs to ointments , pigments and cosmetics.  When excavated this pot still contained traces of a black substance, which may well have been pepper.

Digging up memories and making connections

Helen’s first day at Vindolanda involved a treasure hunt. How quickly could she locate this simple but beautiful object for a visitor?

The epic journey of a pepper pot

By Helen Charlie Nellist (Custodian and Volunteer Guide)

 During the 2001 to 2002 excavations at Vindolanda, a small turned pot, also referred to as a pyxis, was uncovered in a Period I fort ditch, containing a small ball of black, organic matter.  Though tests of this substance remained inconclusive, the general consensus was that it was possibly a condiment, something like pepper.  I have used this idea as a s hypothesis for my piece, speculating on the pot’s journey to our site, and the people who it might have met along the way.

My pepper pot might have started its life as a boxwood tree on the shores of the Black Sea, or as the Romans called it, Pontus Euxinus. After the tree was cut down, the wood would have been  shaped by a skilled wood turner on a lathe. Once completed, the box might have ended up in the hands of merchants on their way from India and would have finally been filled with spicy contents. It was then ready to set off on its long journey towards Hadrian’s Wall country. Although at this point the Wall would barely be a twinkle in Hadrian’s eye.

The first country that our merchant might have pass through would be Sarmatia. This was a confederation of Iranian people, north of the Black Sea, who were famed in the Roman Empire for their horse riding skills and were conscripted as cavalry troops. Perhaps our pot tagged along with some auxiliary soldiers as they made their way to Stanwix, a fort located near Carlisle that was rumoured to have had some Sarmatians stationed there at one time.

Next, they would pass through Germania. Where they would set sail across Oceanus Germanicus (or the North Sea as we refer to it now) to Britain. A writing tablet retrieved from this time period mentions that there were some Tungrians (from modern Belgium) and Raetians (from modern Germany) stationed at Vindolanda around the time that the pepper pot was used on the site.

Upon arriving on the shores of Britannia and having hopefully not falling sick on the crossing, our merchants would begin their journey up the country, before reaching the Stanegate at Coria (Corbridge). They would arrive at Vindolanda some forty years before Hadrian’s Wall was built. Now our pepper pot had reached its final destination.

Who knows who would have used its contents to season their food? Maybe our pyxis even made it to the dinner table of Verecundus, the prefect of the Tungrians, and was used to add some flavour to the turnips and cabbages that he mentioned on a writing tablet.

Eventually, having outlived its usefulness, the pot was unceremoniously cast into a rubbish heap, in the fort ditch. There it remained under several layers of soil and subsequent forts, until some lucky excavator unearthed it almost two thousand years later.

WT 2017-15, Vintab 890: Iulius Verecundus writes to his slave Audax about the transport of part of a load of vegetables and about the wrong key to a box which Audax has sent.

Iulius Verecundus to Audax, greetings. As soon as it will have been possible, send in the morning(?) part of the load which I have today dispatched to you ( plural) with two loose horses . . . lest it be damaged by the conveyance in which the greens will be brought, that is the shoots both of cabbage and of turnip, and send them. Also you sent another key with the box than you should have done, for this is said to be (the key) of the little storeroom . . .’

Further information

Excavation report (see page 210)