A SMALL FANTASY ABOUT SOLDIERS, A DOG AND ROOFING TILES
Let’s take a few moments today and take a trip back through time to visit a cohort of Roman soldiers. These soldiers were in an 80 man century of the second cohort and had been assigned to a detail that was responsible for manufacturing roofing shingles, those large heavy red rectangular tiles that covered the roofs of most Roman buildings. Located on the outskirts of the Roman provincial city of Mogontiacum, on the Rhine River, which served as part of the northern Germanic frontier border of the Roman empire, they were working at a series of large kilns in which the tiles would be fired. Off to one side of the kilns, which were built partly under the surface of ground, there were a number of long large wooden shelters. A couple of hundred yards further away there was a slight rise where, in several different trenches, the loam, clay and sand were being dug up and carted off in wheelbarrows. Near the wooden shelters some of the men were mixing the contents of the wheelbarrows, together with water brought from a nearby stream, in large vats to produce the thick material that would be scooped into wooden molds to form the shingles. These would then be carried over to the shelters and laid out in rows to dry before eventually being fired in the ovens. Depending on the weather, they could be left for days or even weeks to dry out. Today was sunny and mild so some of the molds had been laid out in the adjoining fields to dry. As they worked the soldiers chatted and joked with each other.
A large dog from a nearby farm wandered through one of those fields where the tiles were laid out to dry as the soldiers worked. He was looking for a hand out, but not having much luck. He had big paws with long nails. As he sniffed around he stepped on a few of the drying molds, leaving nice fat paw prints in the soft clay. The soldiers didn’t really care, for with the molds left out to dry for such long periods it wasn’t unusual for dogs, cats, goats, children and the occasional adult to wander through leaving their footprints as the stepped on the clay in the forms. The dog, after raising his leg over a few of the molds, lost interest and loped back off across the fields. Neither he nor the soldiers could possibly know that he had created a permanent moment in time when he stepped on one of the drying tiles.
About a week later the tile with his prints was taken and fired in the kiln, set out to cool and then with hundreds of others, loaded onto an oxcart and transported into the city. There it was used in the roof of a building next to one of the main temples. And there it would remain for perhaps some 250 years until the building was torn down or destroyed in the conflict that followed the fall of the Roman Empire. It was then recycled and reused in the wall of another building before the Franks invaded and when later on that building was destroyed the tile was broken into several pieces and scattered about, one of which had the impression of a single paw print preserved on it. It lay unnoticed for hundreds of years in the ground, eventually covered by all the layers of earth and rubble that the passage of history leaves behind it. At some point in the Middle Ages it was dug up and, along with earth, stones and other tile fragments, was used as a foundation filling for a floor level in a church that had been built above the long buried ruins of the Roman temple. That is where, inside the church, it spent hundreds of years, covered up, as human history unfolded, oblivious to Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, the numerous petty wars between princes, Napoleon’s occupation of Mayence, conflict between the German states before their eventual unification in the 19th century, the War To End All Wars, the Depression, Hitler’s rise to power, the slaughter of the Jews, the intense bombing and destruction of the city in the last days of World War II, the rebuilding of the burned out church in the 1950’s and the industrial modernization of the last four decades until finally this morning, as I was helping to shovel out a section of the church beneath that old floor level, I picked it up, turned it over, brushed it off and touched the paw print of a dog that lived some 1800 years ago and wandered through where the the Roman soldiers had manufactured their tiles on that sunny day so long ago. Now it will join thousands of other tiles and tile fragments that are being studied and researched by specialists, for they too have an interesting tale to tell and will provide a wealth of information. What a long strange trip it’s been…
Photo of the impression of a dog’s paw print in a Roman roofing tile fragment taken on December 11th 2014 shortly after it was found.
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