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Cover of British Archaeology 122

Issue 122

Jan / Feb 2012



All the latest archaeology news from around the country


Your views and responses

CBA Correspondent

Highlights of another year in listed building casework

Mick's Travels

Mick Aston explores less-visted sites in Brittany


Sebastian Payne looks at the reality of spotted horses


COVER STORY: Origins of London

The city reveals its chilling Roman past

Local Authority cuts and EH protection

The latest probelms and policies of procting our heritage

Dating Europe's oldest modern humans

Each team from Somerset and Italy thought they had it

Archaeology in Russia

Heinrich Härke reports on kurgans, politics and sprit

Operation Nightingale

Rehabilitating wounded soldiers with archaeology

Embroidering history

The strange tale of the Bayeux Tapestry, archaeology and the Nazi party


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Coin find raises questions about Roman hoards

Gathered coins

Last June detectorists found a potful of Roman coins on Bredon Hill, south Worcestershire. Despite reports ("Biggest haul of Roman gold [sic] in Britain", Daily Telegraph, 16 Oct) in itself this was nothing special – some 600 hoards of this type are known from Britain, including the far larger Frome hoard. The coins are third century copper alloy radiates. But unexpectedly, excavation showed they had been buried in the fourth century.

Jethro Carpenter and Mark Gilmore dug up the coins then told their Portable Antiquities Scheme's finds liaison officer, Richard Henry. The Worcestershire Historic Environment and Archaeology Service agreed to fund an excavation by its field section under Darren Miller's direction. Though only 3m by 3m, the dig found new evidence for Roman buildings and other activity. Miller ascribes the story to nine phases – six present in the section drawing are numbered (right):

Numbered Section
  1. Ploughsoil with a few sherds of Roman pottery
  2. Stone wall foundation or platform for timber building
  3. Two soils, the later with Roman pottery and a coin (AD260–82)
  4. Wall foundation
  5. Sand and silt covering the demolished wall, with pottery no younger than 2nd century AD; a pit and two postholes may indicate another building
  6. Soil over this contained two coins (AD260–82) and 3rd–4th century pottery
  7. This was covered by soil with stone from another demolished building, with pottery no younger than mid 4th century, possibly even early 5th
  8. –9. Miller says the hoard was buried next, or from higher up: although the finders dug away the pit, there would have been insufficient depth for the pot to have been hidden earlier. Phases 8–9 are post-Roman soils, though only Roman artefacts were found.

The hoard must have been buried no earlier than AD350. Yet the coins – 3,874 in all – were minted in the previous century, between AD244 and 282, implying a gap of two or three generations, perhaps a century, between their issue and burial. What does this mean?

The quantity of British hoards of third century coins – more than anywhere else in the Roman empire – is traditionally ascribed to the period being one of political unrest (the next hoarding peak was during the 17th century English civil war). Yet there is no other indication for such unrest until the end of the fourth century; archaeologists suggested the Frome hoard was a ritual sacrifice (News Sep/Oct 2010, no 114).

Coin expert Richard Reece prefers the simple explanation that the Bredon coins were just very old when buried, a collection, perhaps, made by a long-gone relative. But most hoards are dated only by the coins, so in theory burial across the province may have peaked later or extended over a longer time. Archaeologists have a new interest in hoards' contexts, not just the coins in them.

Archaeologists excavate two rare bronze age hoards

Two new finds show that despite years of metal detecting and intensive recording, there remain types of prehistoric hoard that are rarely seen in Britain. Archaeological excavation at both sites revealed little beyond the metalwork, suggesting that only large scale investigation might have provided a meaningful context and a fuller explanation.

Norfolk Ornaments

Ornament hoard from Norfolk (shank of longer pin 22cm)

The first hoard was excavated by Matthew Adams and Christopher Leonard for Archaeological Solutions Ltd in late September, at the site of a proposed charitable hospice at Hopton-on-Sea, Norfolk. In an area of about 125m×175m, 17 narrow trenches were dug to sample cropmarks thought to show a prehistoric ring ditch and infilled 19th century field boundaries. In what Martin Brook, who managed the fieldwork, described as "sheer chance", a group of middle bronze age copper alloy ornaments was found in a field ditch. Bronze age pottery from another section confirmed the prehistoric age of at least some of the ditches, but there were no other related finds.

The metal objects consist of three contemporary pairs – of quoit-headed pins, twisted torcs and bracelets – of the Taunton metalwork phase, around 1400–1250BC. After a preliminary study, Colin Pendleton noted that "ornament hoards" like this have been found before, particularly on the continent, but that this is probably the first to have been excavated in Britain since the 19th century. The objects are now undergoing conservation and are awaiting detailed analysis.

Meanwhile a bronze age spearhead was found by a detectorist near Tisbury in south Wiltshire. Identified only as Alan, the finder realised more metal appeared to lie buried lower down, but stopped digging and notified the local Portable Antiquities Scheme officer, Katie Hinds. Wiltshire council's Archaeology Service mounted a small excavation in October and recovered an unusual hoard, with 114 copper alloy artefacts ranging in date from early bronze age to early iron age. This range spans as much as 2200–700BC, and the objects, broken or complete, include tools such as chisels, axe blades, sickles and gouges, and weapons such as fragmentary sword blades, a rapier and more spearheads.

Conservation may reveal wood particles from handles inside some of the objects, but despite careful excavation nothing beyond the hoard was found, and it is thought it was buried in a natural depression such as a tree throw hollow. Neither was the detectorist able to find anything else in the field. As in Norfolk, professional recovery allowed the objects to be recovered without damage, and the way they lay in the ground was recorded. But why they were hidden where they were found remains a mystery. All finds are expected to be declared treasure.

Britain in archaeology

Dig Deep for YAC!

The Young Archaeologists' Club (YAC), a unique UK-wide outfit that helps and encourages under-17-year-olds with an interest in archaeology, is in trouble. The club, launched in 1972 as Young Rescue and now with Time Team's Tony Robinson as president, is run – and subsidised – by the Council for British Archaeology. In February 2011 the British Academy announced that it planned to withdraw all core funding to the CBA, an educational charity, in keeping with a policy agreed with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to focus on research institutes outside Europe. YAC now has to support itself, and is urgently seeking funds, saying it needs to be "well on the way to finding £70,000" by spring 2012. The club's membership package will continue. But if the funding goal is not achieved, YAC's volunteer-led branches may face closure, and if necessary the CBA will help them explore options to continue beyond 2012 without CBA backing. See how you can help on the campaign website. "It would be a serious blow", said Robinson, "if YAC's influence is diminished or lost".

Silbury Hill

In 1970 Richard Atkinson said he had found a piece of Stonehenge bluestone on Silbury Hill, launching a debate that new finds only partly resolve. Stonehenge is famous for its smaller megaliths, quarried or moved by glaciers from Wales. This was the first piece of such stone found away from the site in modern times. Unfortunately it appeared to be lost: archaeologists were sceptical that it was bluestone, while some geologists claimed it backed the glacier transport theory (Letters Jan/Feb 2010, no 110). Now Jim Leary, director of recent Silbury excavations for English Heritage, says Atkinson's piece (the largest in the photo, 25mm across) has been found in Avebury museum, and is identical to three flakes from his own dig on the mound's top. Rob Ixer (Department of Geology, University of Leicester) says they are all from a single block of spotted dolerite. They are artefacts, so must have been put there by people: but exactly when, and what the original block was like, remain a mystery. The stones are noted in a reprint of The Story of Silbury Hill (Books Jan/Feb 2010, no 116).

Cornwall council's Historic Environment Service has excavated a bronze age burial on Whitehorse Hill, one of the highest and remotest parts of Dartmoor National Park. Scheduled in 2003, the small stone cist was threatened by deep erosion. The peat had unusually preserved not just cremated bone and textile, but also unburnt hide or fur, leather, textile and plant material; shale and amber beads and a circular textile band lay in a fine woven bag. Two sharpened wooden stakes were found outside the cist. The cist's entire contents, with the granite base stone, were removed to the Wiltshire Conservation Service laboratory.

Bicester reburial

A Roman Catholic requiem mass was held in October for the remains of 14 Anglo-Saxon women and one man, before their reburial in Bicester, Oxfordshire. The skeletons had been dated to AD640–85 and had been excavated from what is thought to have been a Christian cemetery. James Lewis of Thames Valley Archaeological Services said, "We'd much rather they had gone into a museum. There are other ways of showing respect". The remains were placed in plastic bags inside a wicker coffin. Image © BBC.

Avon and Somerset Police arrested a man on 31 October on suspicion of causing criminal damage to a scheduled monument, the Priddy circles. Much of one of four rare neolithic earthworks, looking similar to henges but largely unexcavated, was bulldozed in June (see feature Sep/Oct 2011, no 120). In September, Northamptonshire Police arrested two people on suspicion of illegally using a metal detector, the theft of treasure, damage to the land and other offences at the scheduled Roman walled town at Irchester. The important site was bought by Northamptonshire county council with a government grant in 2004, with a view to preserving it for public benefit.

The press reported a "huge Viking hoard" in October, found by a detectorist at an undisclosed location on the border of Cumbria and north Lancashire. Darren Webster dug up a "lead pot", containing Viking coins and silver jewellery, including bracelets engraved with serpents. The Tullie House Museum, Carlisle, which was first told of the hoard, compared the find to the Cuerdale hoard found near Preston, Lancashire in 1840, the largest Viking silver hoard in north-west Europe.

Twelve inscribed slates have been excavated at Nevern Castle, Pembrokeshire, set vertically in the threshold to the gateway into the stone castle of 1170–90. Project director Chris Caple said as this was the only location such slates had been found, and they would have been invisible, the stars and patterns were probably designed to ward off evil. Research excavations began at the castle in 2008 (see feature Nov/Dec 2009, no 109).

Camelon forts

Excavation at the site of a future Tesco supermarket in Camelon, Falkirk have revealed remains of two Roman forts close to the Antonine Wall. The forts were known from previous excavations and inscriptions, which date their construction to around AD80–83 and AD139. Among the many finds from the new work were 60 pairs of hobnailed leather sandals, in a waterlogged ditch at the second fort's gateway. Martin Cook, of AOC Archaeology Group, which dug less than 10% of the site, said the shoes were probably accumulated throwaways from soldiers.

A grave excavated at Knowth, Co Meath, Ireland some 40 years ago, and containing gaming pieces and dice, has been dated to close in age to the board game found in the "doctor's grave" at Stanway, Essex. Earlier said to have been no later than the sixth century AD, the burial has now been radiocarbon dated to 40BC–AD130. The Stanway grave, said to be that of a Druid and also containing surgical instruments, dates from AD40–60 (feature Mar/Apr 2008, no 99). In an article in Antiquity (85, Dec 2011) Mark Hall and Katherine Forsyth argue that board games first reached south-east England in the late first century BC, with other Roman practices such as wine-drinking, coinage and literacy, and then spread rapidly after the conquest.

Survey of the site of a plane crash on Skye, in which all nine crew died in March 1945, suggests that islanders' accounts of the flight path, which differ from the official record, were correct. The men were bringing the B-17G Flying Fortress bomber from the US via Iceland to Wales, but came down in bad weather in Scotland. Debris now covers an area of 450m by 450m. Terence Christian, of the University of Glasgow's Centre for Battlefield Archaeology, said the crew went below cloud level to get their bearings and had just been unlucky. "These sites should be treated with respect", he said, "as the pieces of wreckage are the memorials to the crews".

Cirencester grave

Over 40 inhumations and four cremations excavated in Cirencester, Gloucestershire, have been described by the excavators Cotswold Archaeology as part of "one of the earliest [inhumation] burial sites ever found in Roman Britain". A child's grave in a small enclosure, perhaps a family plot, contained a pottery flagon dating to AD70–120. If this date extends to the other graves, it would make the site an unusually early inhumation cemetery, as the practice was not common until the late second to fourth centuries. Cremation and inhumation burials have been found at the former Bridges Garage site since the 19th century.

Phase 2


In June we asked Will Bowden to explain the importance of a little understood Roman villa close to a Norman minster in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, that was threatened by a new housing estate (Jul/Aug 2011, no 119). Newark and Sherwood district council, spurning their planning officers' advice, rejected the application in November. Bowden says it was housing density, not archaeology, that swayed the council, and the developer may appeal.

Choice pieces from the Staffordshire hoard (feature Nov/Dec 2009, no 109) are now at the National Geographic Museum, Washington DC, where opening attendance was apparently exceeded only by a show about the Chinese terracotta army (see video). The hoard featured on the society's magazine cover (Nov 2011), and the website has more of interest. Meanwhile 34 of the Lewis Chessmen are in New York, lent by the British Museum to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for "The Game of Kings", until 22 April 2012. (See also, press release.)

You might have read in the November media about a new "Pictish stronghold" at Rhynie, Aberdeenshire. Regular magazine followers will have seen the fuller story here in August (feature Sep/Oct 2011, no 120), and it seems only fair to give the Times credit for referring its readers to British Archaeology.

Thanks also to Ben Gilliland, who did an imaginative take on Bouldnor Cliff (feature Nov/Dec 2011, no 121) in the Metro papers. Lots of pots (mostly in small bits) feature in this magazine, and if you're not a specialist you may wonder what to do if you dig them up. A detailed guide to the oldest stuff (The Study of Prehistoric Pottery: General Polices & Guidelines for Analysis & Publication, ISBN: 0951848933) is now available for free download.

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As the scientists have now shown, if you go back far enough we are all, in a sense, non-indigenous. I find this fact reassuring.
Abdal Hakim Murad on "Thought for the day", BBC Radio 4 Today, 8 November 2011

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