The Lanchester Plaque or Diploma

The Fleet Diploma

Found in 2016 by metal detectorist Mark Houston near Lanchester, Co. Durham, this is the first complete Fleet Diploma to be discovered in the country and reveals the identity of one of Britain’s first named sailors. The diploma is made of a copper alloy and is now broken into 8 fragments, although it would have originally consisted of 2 rectangular bronze plates which were attached together with metal wires. – from the Durham University site. Click on this link to read more.

A graphic which will feature in the Durham Museum of Archaeology display of the Roman fleet diploma (Image: Handout)

We all know that the external appearance of something is not a reliable indication of its true nature. And that turned out to be the case with one of Mark Housten’s detecting finds. Mark uses a Garrett AT Pro and has been detecting ‘seriously’ for about nine years.

What he discovered in a Durham field on a wet and very cold day in February 2016 has proved to be of great importance. Indeed, his find has added to the knowledge of how archaeologists and other experts interpret our history.

Mark ecstatically declared, “The diploma is my ‘gold’ and ‘silver’ all rolled into one. I reckon, with this discovery, I’ve re-written some of the pages of history!”

See the complete record on the PAS

At first glance the eight small pieces of bronze ‘plates’ stacked on top of each other didn’t look much and, being a biker, reminded him of the cells from a cycle battery. The find that Mark had plucked from the soil interested him because of their beautiful green patina. At this early stage, he placed them in his pouch, not realising what he had found, but something ‘inside’ told him that they were much more than just ‘hedge fodder’.

Detail of bottom left tablet. Click to enlarge.

At home, and after careful preliminary cleaning with a soft brush, he noticed what he thought to be Latin words each plate. At this stage he became very excited and couldn’t wait to show them to Ellie Cox who, at that time, was FLO for County Durham, but is now FLO for Northamptonshire.

It is her expertise that determined that the objects were ‘diplomas’ in the form or two bronze tablets that had been originally hinged together with an inscription on both sides. These diplomas certified that the named holder had been honorably discharged from the Roman army and granted Roman citizen status as a reward for service. Evidently they are found across the former territory of the Roman Empire and are copies of original documents kept in Rome. None of the originals survive.

Ellie says, “The texts are highly formulaic and the Lanchester source for the study of the Roman Empire because their contents give precisely dated military details in individual provinces, thus enabling further reconstruction of the details of garrisoning of Roman Europe. This diploma (and those like it) give the names of consuls, provincial governors and unit commanders they also shed light on the power structures of the empire. Last, but not least, they illustrate the biographies of individual soldiers, especially of non-citizen auxiliary soldiers who joined up for the material rewards and opportunities for social mobility that military service offered. The prospect of citizenship (with legal status and the prospect of financial advantages) for those who served their full term (typically 25 years), as well as for their families, was an attractive benefit of military service.

This example demonstrates the links the Roman Empire created between Britain and the rest of the empire, as the individual to whom the Diploma was given, has a native name: Magiotigernus (initial study suggest this means great king). This demonstrates that this individual had his roots in the native population and likely came from the region in which he deposited the diploma. We can see the full circle of military service with the Roman forces demonstrated by this individual. In this instance it appears that a local man has chosen to serve with the Roman Navy, travelled and served with the German Rhine Fleet, and returned after his period of service as a citizen to his home in the North East of England.

Given the strong links the individual who was awarded this Diploma had withthe region, it is wonderful and very appropriate that Mr. Houston has allowed the object to be acquired by Durham Museum of Archaeology so that the object stays within the region and will be accessible to the public and for further study.”

Ellie wishes to thank Roger Tomlins of Oxford University and John Pearce of Kings College London for their work on the transcriptions, for which she is very grateful. Also Mark Housten for his generosity in allowing me to tell his story.

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Mark’s forum post that alerted me to this story.

“Back in 2016 I may well have found the best find I will ever get metal detecting. Whilst out on a very cold February day I got a banging signal. I kept digging down to about twelve inches and came across the beautiful patina green of bronze.

I didn’t know what I had unearthed and very carefully cleaned the find. What I ended up was eight ‘plates’ stacked on top of each other. I had no idea what they were. At home I cleaned further (water and soft tooth brush only), and placed them to dry on the window sill. As the light caught them I noticed what looked like Latin script on both sides.

You can imagine my heart rate at this point. Anyway, I I sought advice from others and decided it could be a diploma. I informed my FLO who got very excited at the prospect. 

The plates went on a journey of research and translation. Eventually (one year later) they came home and are now going to be in pride of place at a local museum. It turns out to be (probably) the only near as damn complete diploma of any kind found in Great Britain.. I am very proud and lucky to be the person to find this which has thrown a few spanners into the works of history along the way, but onwards and upwards.”

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UPDATE

‘Glennsniper’, a Finds’ Adviser on the Premier MDF, said, “Great Find!”

“The diploma one of the things that first impelled me to take up detecting. I used to go walking and cycling around Malpas in Cheshire and became interested in the history of the area. A diploma was found there and I gained permission to search s few farms. Never found any more diplomas but did find history.” Glenn supplied a ilnk for the Malpas diploma. Check it out . . . 

Malpas Military Diploma – © PAS – Click to Enlarge – See full details by clicking HERE

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11 thoughts on “The Lanchester Plaque or Diploma”

  1. Actually, John.. words fail me at this point.. That is a find that would make all of my other finds, seem insignificant.. better than a Roman coin.. better than hammered..

    Had I found something like that, I probably would have tossed it intp my scrap brass/bronze pile and thought no more about it..

    What a piece of history.

    Micheal

    • Sorry that I have reduced your vocabulary somewhat Micheal, but Alan has stoked my ire as you can see below. Is he trying to wind me up? 🙂

      More significant and better than a Roman coin, as you say!

  2. I have to use the word AWSOME find …it must be fantastic to unearth something of great importance and have it displayed for all to see and enjoy in the area it was found …beats a gold coin any day

  3. we dream of finding a hoard or a rare coin but this has to be the crème de la crème;ad destinatum persequor bravium oculos circoque locantur

  4. Wow what a stellar find!

    There is but a small handful of people that can lay claim to writing a new chapter in history, it would appear that Mark Houston could be one of those lucky people to do so!

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