Discover: The Verulamium Museum

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Copyright St Albans Museums

We explore The Verulamium Museum in St. Albans and take a trip back to Britain in the time of the Romans.

The Verulamium Museum, St. Albans, is one of UK’s foremost galleries of Roman artefacts, and one of our most important sites for understanding Roman culture in Britain. The museum houses a vast collection of relics from antiquity, dating from the 1st to the 5th century AD. Visitors can sample Roman pottery and farming tools, and admire the elaborate mosaics of the ancient city’s bathhouses and country manors. There are also interactive exhibits explaining life, leisure and burial, and plotted activities and treasure hunts for kids to explore.

Verulamium - literally translating to “the settlement above the marshes” - was, for a time, Britain’s most important city and an important centre for Roman trade networks. Merchants form the continent brought luxuries and goods to the nearby port, and ships carried Britain’s vast production of grain back to Rome to feed the metropolis’ ever-growing populace. The museum displays the physical remains of these long-distance transactions. The ‘Commerce’ gallery contains huge ‘amphorae’—clay jugs for the carrying liquid. These transport vessels hauled Italian wine and Spanish fish-sauce—a Roman delicacy—over the seas, eventually furnishing the banquet halls of Britain’s noblemen.

Verulamium Museum from the outside.

© St Albans Museums

Trade brought prosperity to Verulamium. Panels show the elaborate frescos and mosaics that decked aristocratic houses, covering whole walls and floors with bright reds, oranges and purples. This was a must-have display of wealth in the Roman world. Garish colours, it appears, were once the height of sophistication. Below St Albans are also the remains of giant civic buildings. A large theatre was built in 150AD and the museum displays actors’ masks and recreations of set designs. Equally dramatic is the temple to Cybele, a large triangular complex that lay in the centre of the local community.

The galleries walk visitors through the activities of day-to-day life. An agriculture section shows the tools available to latter-day farmers - rather hefty turf-cutters and the rusted remains of a familiar looking spade. After work, labourers might relax with a board game. The museum demonstrates ‘Par Impur’ and ‘Ludus Latrunculorum’—Roman chequers often with a little ‘denarii’ bet on the side. Some archaeological finds show the comical side to life in Verulamium. A large density of brooches near the bathhouse entrance suggests a jewellery vendor sat just outside. Brooches were the main means of fastening Roman togas and, without modern spring mechanisms, tended be quite brittle. One can almost imagine an unfortunate bather clumsily snapping his pin, rushing out tunic desperately clasped round the waist, gladly met by the opportunistic merchant charging twice the price for a substitute.

Verulamium Museum wall paintings.

© St Albans Museums

But who were the people living out these daily scenes? One of the most interesting revelations disclosed by the museum’s discoveries is the likely background of Verulamium’s inhabitants. Many of the objects unearthed suggest a blurring of Roman and local British customs. A beautifully ornate statue of Mercury—a traditional Roman God of commerce and luck—displayed in the museum, was found with a Celtic ring around its neck. The worshipper, it appears, may have merged the two cultural traditions. Similarly, the ‘Burial’ gallery shows the finds from one nobleman’s grave. The objects include a flowing silver jug, likely manufactured in Gaul, and elaborate glasswork only produced on the continent. However, the grave also contains a metal ale-straining pot, an heirloom common to native British cultures that was likely to have been 200 hundred years old at the time of its burial. Curator to the museum’s collection David Thorold contends that the individuals behind the Mercury statue, the burial finds, and indeed most of Verulamium’s inhabitants, were very likely native Britons. More recent archaeological study has revealed that St. Albans was the site of a pre-Roman, Iron Age settlement. This township’s inhabitants likely stayed put throughout the Roman invasion, happily adopting their new ruler’s customs and objects.

Mercury statue at Verulamium Museum

© St Albans Museums

This continuity in Verulamium’s citizens may also explain the city’s slow decline. As the Roman Empire receded in the 5th century, trade to Britain dwindled. Soldiers were no longer stationed around the town, and ships less regularly arrived from the continent. Roman customs remained for a time, but with less money coming in the pottery designs became more basic and buildings less grand. Interestingly, Christianity appears to have taken the place of classically Roman customs. The St. Albans abbey became the main holder of land in the area, and multiple churches sprang up at the settlement’s fringes - a neat through-line to the city’s most recognised feature today, St. Albans Cathedral.

The Verulamium Museum is a fascinating look into our past and a rare chance to get up close and personal with lots of unique artefacts from Roman Britain. The exhibits are especially kid-friendly, with lots of dramatic pictures and fun explanations. Research is still being conducted on the Verulamium site, and indications suggest there is still a lot to discover. So stay posted: the museum may have even more to display in the near future!

The National Art Pass by Art Fund offers free entry to over 240 museums, galleries and historic places across the UK, as well as 50% off entry to major exhibitions. The scheme supports the work of Art Fund, the national fundraising charity for art. The National Art Pass offers free entry to Verulamium Museum.

This article was written in partnership with the Art Fund, who have provided the Culture Calling team with an art pass to explore their affiliated venues and events. All opinions are based on our experiences.