Chamfrons on art installation at Arbeia

Art Project: Chamfrons On! at Arbeia Roman Fort

In 2016 and 2017 nine museums and archaeological sites took part in Hadrian's Cavalry art project. Lead artist Karen MacDougall kept a diary of the process. These are her thoughts about the Chamfrons On! project at Arbeia Roman Fort and Museum.

Chamfrons On! at Arbeia

"Arbeia gives the visitor a real feel for Roman buildings, gate, barracks and warehouses. It became a supply depot for the camps along the Wall and an important control point overlooking the River Tyne and the start of Hadrian’s Wall at Segedunum. Arbeia really shows how archaeology keeps changing our view of life in the past. Here horses' heads have been excavated, proving horses were living at the fort during its occupation.

A day of imagination

Virginia Wilkinson from Tyne and Wear Museums at Arbeia in South Shields wanted a legacy piece for their garden room. We involved Hadrian’s Primary School, just across the road, in the project. Year 5 pupils spent a day with us exploring Arbeia. They looked at models showing how it had changed, seeing the vista from the top of the entrance gatehouse. They imagined today's buildings replaced by scrubland and worked out if it would be possible to signal to Segedunum across the river.

Piling into the barracks, we decided that living conditions for the cavalry would have been cramped. We also saw first hand evidence of the cavalry through horse harness pieces and a horse’s skull.

Anatomy and art

We took the the theme of the horses' heads as inspiration, choosing to sculpt six in homage to the skeletons. Mounted on the garden room wall, they would resemble a row of cavalry horses ready for battle.

When making art you must understand the object you are trying to create. Using the skull, I taught them about horse anatomy and how to draw a horse's head. We then took this into 3D and explored how to make an armature. This is a framework on which you build up your sculpture. We used newspaper rolls, bubblewrap and rolls of masking tape.

Back at the school we added layers of torn newspaper, PVA and acrylic paint to create the final form. I also introduced embossing on metal foil which the students loved. They made phalerae (circular discs), decorative motifs for the harnesses and chamfrons (horses' head armour).

Haute Couture for the Cavalry!

With Georgia, an Italian volunteering with Tyne and Wear Museums, we cut brown and black 'pleather' chamfrons. We tailored them to fit each very different horse's head - Haute Couture for the Cavalry! There were several examples of leather chamfrons excavated at other sites to inspire our designs.

Our chamfrons were then embellished by Year 5 using 3D paint, split pins and embossed foil detailing. I added harnesses and transported the six life sized horses' heads to Arbeia on the back seat of a family car!"

- By artist Karen MacDougall

Karen's haiku reflecting on the project

Waiting for action

Frozen, inspired by the past

Reins and chamfrons on!

More art projects

Want more inspiration? There are links to all the projects in Diary of a Hadrian's Cavalry Artist.

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