Romans to take centre stage in major exhibition

Norwich Castle in bright January sunshine. Picture: Denise Bradley

Norwich Castle in bright January sunshine. Picture: Denise Bradley - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2012

Her eyes still stare out from the board on which her incredibly lifelike funeral portrait was painted in Egypt almost 2,000 years ago.

Now this unnamed Roman – or rather her likeness – will be travelling to Norfolk to take part in Roman Empire: Power and People, a blockbuster British Museum touring exhibition poised to be the biggest archaeology event seen at Norwich Castle since 2005.

The exhibition brings together more than 160 stunning pieces from the British Museum to explore the story of one of the most powerful empires the world has ever seen.

Highlights will include sculpture from the villas of the Emperors Tiberius and Hadrian, coins from the famous Hoxne treasure, beautiful jewellery, and even the poignant sight of near-perfectly preserved children's clothing from Roman Egypt.

Two years in the planning, the exhibition – described as 'a real coup for Norfolk' – is visiting the county from February to April next year as one of just six regional museums in the UK.

With interest in the world of the Romans at an all-time high thanks to the success of the Pompeii exhibition at the British Museum, Dr John Davies, chief curator for the Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service, is expecting this display to be hugely popular.

'Everyone is excited by the Romans, so we are really looking forward to bringing it here,' he said. 'It's a real coup for Norfolk.'

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Roman Empire: Power and People – for which the EDP will be media partner – will feature some of the most fascinating objects from the British Museum's collections, including representations of gods and emperors, and objects from as far apart as Hadrian's Wall and the city he founded in Egypt.

'Most Roman exhibitions focus on the army – but this one is very different,' Dr Davies explained. 'We are looking at the lives of ordinary people and how the multi-cultural empire all fitted together. Our themes are the people, power, influence and communities across the Empire.

'The Pompeii exhibition at the British Museum has shown yet again people's abiding fascination with the Romans. Thanks to the British Museum we can bring this exhibition of international significance to the area.'

Many of the British Museum objects have rarely or ever been put on public display. As well as relics of the emperors it will include items touching the lives of ordinary folk, including a soldier's discharge 'certificate', mirrors, brooches and hair pins – even a children's sock.

The Castle Museum's own fabulous Worthing Helmet and recent local finds and acquisitions – including a very rare hoard of glass from Hockwold – will also be on display.

The exhibition is yet another example of the long relationship the castle has had with the British Museum. 'We have a key partnership with the British Museum and they came to us straight away when this one was being planned,' Dr Davies said. The exhibition reflects not only that fruitful partnership, but also the importance of Norfolk in the Roman world.

'We are used to thinking about Norfolk being on the edge of things but the fact is that Roman East Norfolk was at the heart of a major trading route with the Rhineland and the Mediterranean.' That meant luxury goods such as wine, glass and fine pottery poured into the county for hundreds of years. The exhibition explores the wealth, power and organisation of the empire, but also how the Romans viewed the provinces and other peoples, from northern Britain to Egypt and the Middle East. These fascinating objects show how the influences of the many peoples and places that the Romans came in contact with were absorbed and adapted into the empire.

Dr Davies said the exhibition would be family-friendly, with many children's activities and events, including some centred round Latin, currently enjoying a revival in many schools. For the grown-ups, events will include a conference and a series of lectures from major archaeologists and historians. All in all, this will be the biggest archaeology exhibition at the castle since the blockbuster Buried Treasure – also organised with the British Museum – in 2005.

Roman Empire: Power and People runs at Norwich Castle Museum from February 1 to April 27 2014. The exhibition has been developed in partnership with Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives and the British Museum.