Women lived and worked in Roman military forts, according to a telltale trail of lost hairpins and beads.
This dispels the notion the forts were male-only domains, says archaeologist Dr Penelope Allison of the Australian National University.
She presents her analysis of the archaeological record at the Australasian Archaeometry Conference in Canberra this week.
"These were not segregated communities," says Allison, who has been studying evidence from 1st and 2nd century forts on the western frontier of the Roman Empire.
"They would have had a lot of women involved, possibly as wives, possibly running shops, possibly involved in craft, inside the fort."
Ordinary Roman soldiers were not legally allowed to have wives, says Allison, and it has generally been thought that the only women allowed in the forts were wives of commanding officers.
"Any other women, whether they be wives or concubines or prostitutes or tradespersons, were not thought to live within the fort," she says.
This belief was reinforced, says Allison, by what she describes as the "elitist attitude" of 19th military historians that Roman forts would be segregated because women disrupted military life.
"That's been projected back onto the Roman world," she says.
But, says Allison, although Rome decreed ordinary soldiers could not marry, the reality was quite different away from the front.
In a unique study, Allison has been analysing patterns of objects found throughout the forts that support the presence of women.
"The distribution of lost and abandoned objects, tells us quite a lot of about where people go and how they use a space," she says.
Using computer software, she has mapped the distribution of over 30,000 artefacts.
She found objects used by women, such as hairpins, beads, perfume bottles and spindle wheels scattered in buildings and along the streets of the forts.
"They all tend to group together in different parts of the fort," she says.
The location of these objects suggest women often played an active life in the fort, says Allison, which might be better described as a functioning town with a market rather than a sterile male-only province.
She says women were well and truly integrated into the forts, playing "helpful" non-combatant roles of wives, mothers, craftspeople and traders.
Allison says her conclusion is also supported by the remains of about 11 babies buried beneath the fort barracks.
Some historians who favour the idea the forts were segregated have attempted to "explain away" this discovery by arguing the babies' remains were accidentally brought into the fort in soil. But Allison rejects this.
She says evidence, such as that from tombstone inscriptions, record the fact that men left property to women they'd formed long-lasting relationships with.
FWIW, the point made in my dissertation was that the supposed 'ban' on legal marriage of soldiers, usually ascribed to Septimius Severus, was not necessary nor was it ever necessary in most situations. Until a soldier had Roman citizenship, his marriage wouldn't have been recognized under the normal stringencies of conubium anyway (to say nothing of the spouse, who was most likely a foreigner). But lack of conubium does not mean there was a lack of 'marriage' ...