British Archaeology, no 11, February 1996: News

Late Roman farm yields image of the good life

The excavation of a Roman farmhouse and farm at Boreham, near Chelmsford in Essex, has produced unusual evidence of affluent country living in the 3rd 4th centuries AD. The farmhouse contained such luxuries as a covered walkway and a bathhouse, and the farmer's household enjoyed imported Mediterranean foods usually only found in towns, such as olives and pine kernels. The site has also produced possible evidence of falconry, a rich man's country pursuit known to have taken place elsewhere in the Empire, but not previously found in Britain.

Large-scale excavations by archaeologists from Essex County Council, directed by Mark Germany, have uncovered much of the layout of the farm, including fields, trackways, and ponds, as well as the farm buildings themselves. The farm seems to have been laid out in a single, planned operation in the 1st century, but was considerably expanded in the 3rd century, and was probably abandoned early in the 5th.

Some of the most interesting finds at the site came from waterlogged deposits at the bottom of the farm's well. These included the imported food remains, as well as local foods such as cherries, plums and walnuts, fish, goose, duck, woodcock, hare and oyster. The well also contained the bones of sparrowhawk and thrush - one of the sparrowhawk's natural prey - providing the possible evidence of hawking. Remnants of the well's original wood lining were also preserved.

The farmhouse was built of timber, probably with wattle-and-daub walls and a thatched roof. It had a wide interior, which may have been illuminated by clerestory windows; and a covered walkway ran along the front of the house, possibly in imitation of corridor villas. A tiled, three-roomed bathhouse, containing hot and cold rooms and a furnace, was attached to one end of the house, with drains leading out to a small pond.

The site of the pond itself contained waterlogged pollen evidence for the appearance of the contemporary landscape, suggesting that the farm was surrounded by damp, weedy grassland, with shrubs and trees such as oak, pine, birch, hawthorn, beech and elder. A separate granary building had burned down, preserving charred evidence of spelt (a primitive form of wheat), barley and peas.

According to Owen Bedwin, Essex's Assistant County Archaeologist, the farm itself may not have been unusual in the Roman period. `But few Roman farms have been excavated on such a large scale, or contain such interesting organic evidence in waterlogged deposits,' he said. The work was jointly funded by English Heritage and by the site's developer, St Albans Sand and Gravel.

A yearly newspaper about archaeology in Essex, Essex Archaeology, can be obtained free by sending an A4 SAE to the Planning Department at Essex County Council, County Hall, Chelmsford CM1 1LF.

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Anglo-Saxon watermill found in Tyne

The remains of a large Anglo-Saxon multiple watermill have been found in the River Tyne near Corbridge in Northumberland. Dated to the 8th-10th centuries by radiocarbon tests, it seems to have consisted of three (or perhaps four) timber mills working together in parallel, set on stone foundations on the bed of the river.

The Corbridge mill is one of only about half a dozen mills known in Britain which had horizontal mill wheels, all dating from the late Anglo-Saxon period, but it is the only multiple mill among them. In size, it is paralleled in the Anglo-Saxon period only by a triple vertical- wheeled mill at Old Windsor in Berkshire, possibly dating from the late 7th century. The mill lies close to the ruins of a Roman stone bridge, which had once carried Dere Street to the Roman settlement at Corbridge; and stones from the bridge were re-used in the mill's foundations. Roman Corbridge had been abandoned at the end of the Roman period, and a new Anglo-Saxon settlement lay about a mile downstream.

Little is known at present of Anglo-Saxon Corbridge; but according to one of the excavators, Margaret Snape of Tyne and Wear Museums, the size of the mill, and its distance from the settlement, suggests Corbridge was a major regional centre at the time. `This is really a very big milling complex; and if it was surrounded by Corbridge's farmland - as it was in the later medieval period - then the Anglo-Saxon settlement had a very large area of common land,' she said.

The remains of the mill consist of three flat, level stone platforms next to one another, separated by timber sill-beams containing mortices for timber walls and sockets for water chutes. According to the excavators, there may originally have been a fourth platform, which has now disappeared.

The platforms had previously been interpreted as a medieval quay, but detailed inspection last year showed they bore a close resemblance to elements of the Anglo-Saxon mill at Tamworth in Staffordshire. The platforms are thought to have been basements for two-storey mills, with the mill-wheel in the basement and the mill-stone on the upper floor.

The new interpretation was strengthened by the discovery of a mill chute, 4.5m long, for directing a jet of water from the mill-pond at the wheel. The chute was found on the riverbed in the centre of the stream, wedged underneath a boulder, and has not yet been recovered. A row of stakes on the landward side of the platforms has been identified as the revetted side of a millpond.

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Skinned human skull suggests head cult

The skull of a teenage Romano-British boy, which seems to have been skinned at the time of death and displayed on a pole, has been found in a late 2nd century pit outside a contemporary temple in St Albans. The skull is without known parallel in Roman Britain, but may provide new evidence for a head cult in the province.

At least 90 cut-marks made by a fine-bladed knife were found on the sides and top of the skull, in addition to several scrape-marks. The disorderly pattern of the marks suggests the skull was defleshed (where the bare skull is the prized object) rather than scalped (where the scalp itself is more important), according to archaeologists Simon Mays of English Heritage and James Steele of Southampton University, who publish their findings in next month's Antiquity. The skin of the face itself was left on the skull, perhaps because facial skin is particularly hard to remove.

The skull contains four large holes caused by blows at the time of death, suggesting the boy was battered to death before being decapitated and defleshed - though whether he was killed and defleshed by the same people is unknown. The boy's front teeth and lower jaw were missing from the pit, and there is damage to the base of the skull, all of which suggests the skull may have been displayed on a pole until all the flesh disappeared and the jaw dropped off.

According to Dr Mays, the absence of weathering suggests the skull was displayed indoors, perhaps in the nearby temple. `It was probably when the skull ceased to be an object of veneration that it was placed in the pit, where it was found with puppy bones and a small iron knife,' he said. Why this particular boy's skull was chosen for defleshing, however, remains unclear.

No other defleshed skulls are known from the period, but one 3rd-4th century skull fragment is known from Wroxeter which seems to have been scalped. Other possible evidence for a head cult includes parts of two skulls built into a temple wall at Cosgrove, Northamptonshire, and numerous skulls deliberately deposited in pits in the Romano-British period as well as in the pre-Roman Iron Age.

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In brief

Oldest spectacles

A pair of spectacles that may be the oldest in Britain has been found by metal detectorists on the Thames foreshore in London. The spectacles date from c 1500, and consist of circular bone eyepieces joined by a domed iron rivet. They may once have also included felt pads where they sat on the nose. The detectorists, Terry Letch, Roger Green and Rikki Sullivan, found the spectacles at Swan Stairs in the City, and kept the frames damp until they could be delivered to the Museum of London for conservation.

Spectacles were invented in Italy in the 13th century, and a pair is known to have belonged to the Bishop of Exeter in 1326. Some also feature in 14th and 15th century illustrations. The new find is the second of around this date to be found in London, and several others were found under the choirstalls of a church in Wienhausen in Germany.

Cultural database

Millions of items held in museums, galleries, libraries and monument records in Scotland are to be fed into a massive computer database, following a grant of UKP7.5m by the Millennium Commission to a consortium of the Scottish Royal Commission, the Scottish Museums Council and the National Museums of Scotland. The grant represents half the total cost of the project.

The multi-media database, the only IT project funded by the Commission so far, will include thousands of digitised images of Scottish artefacts, perhaps supported by sound and film, and will eventually be available in all Scottish schools and universities, as well as to a wider audience through such means as modem, cable TV and CD-ROM.

Catal Hoyuk date

Catal Hoyuk in central Turkey, one of the world's best-known, largest, and oldest Neolithic towns, has been shown by dendrochronology to be about 500 years older than was previously supposed. The town was thought to date from 6500-5400BC, but analysis of about 500 tiny juniper-wood charcoal fragments by American dendrochronologist Maryanne Newton at Cornell University has produced dates of c 7200-6500BC.

NEWS is compiled by Simon Denison

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