ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 2, March 1995


Welsh monastery found to have Roman origins

The location of a major early medieval monastery, previously known only from documentary sources, has been confirmed by the discovery of one of the largest and best preserved early Christian cemeteries in Britain.

Medieval Welsh charters refer to a monastery at Llandough, near Penarth in South Glamorgan, flourishing between c 650-1075, and a cemetery has now been found there containing over 800 burials dating from Late Roman times to the 11th century.

The cemetery lies close to the site of a 2nd-4th century Roman villa, and contains several Christian burials of Late Roman date, suggesting the monastery may have developed out of a Late Roman Christian centre. Examples of ecclesiastical continuity from Roman times are common on the continent but extremely rare in Britain.

The number of burials, and the discovery of high-status imported pottery, confirmed the cemetery as the site of Llandough monastery, according to Neil Holbrook, Director of the Cotswold Archaeological Trust which undertook the excavation.

The pottery, from olive-oil amphorae made in the eastern Mediterranean dating from c AD475-550, belongs to a type found at only a handful of sites in Britain - among them the early medieval royal centre at Dinas Powys 2km to the south west. `The discovery of the pottery at both sites shows there was a connection between them. Llandough may have served as a cemetery for the community at Dinas Powys,' Mr Holbrook said.

The excavation, north of the enclosure wall of the present church of St Dochdwy, found no traces of the monastery itself, which was abandoned after the Norman Conquest and is assumed to lie entirely underneath the present churchyard.

So far only four skeletons have been radiocarbon-dated, yielding 5th-6th, 8th-9th, 8th-10th and 10th-11th century dates. Further dates are given by finds. Most Roman pottery in the graves dates from the 3rd-4th centuries, coinciding with the major period of activity at the villa nearby. Five burials, aligned east-west in the Christian manner, contained hobnails from boots - a well-known Late Roman burial tradition; and four graves, including one with hobnails, contained Roman coins of AD330-50. The 5th-6th century date is supported by the amphora fragments; and the absence of later medieval pottery suggests burial had ceased at Llandough by the 12th-14th centuries.

One skeleton, of uncertain date, was found with two iron bands around its waist, of a type unknown elsewhere. They seem to have been held about 20mm apart by a wooden strut, and were perhaps the stiffeners inside a broad surgical leather truss, to support a hernia or a bad back.

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Coal `first used in Iron Age'

Evidence has been found that coal was first used as a fuel in Britain in the Iron Age. Previously the earliest use of coal was thought to date from the Roman period, with timber the only fuel widely used before that.

The evidence consists of large quantities of coal fragments, many of them burned or charred, found in the defensive ditches of an enclosed Late Iron Age settlement at Port Seton near Edinburgh. The multi-phase ditched settlement, heavily eroded by plough damage, seems to contain four roundhouses, and is dated by finds of Late Iron Age pottery to the last few centuries BC.

The area is rich in coal, with many coal measures running close to the surface. But according to the excavator, Rod McCullagh of AOC Scotland, the coal was not a natural deposit, but appeared to have been brought to the site, used, and dumped as domestic refuse in the ditch. Very little wood-charcoal was found, implying that timber was not used as a fuel at the site.

Dr Margaret Faull, Director of the Yorkshire Mining Museum, said that the finds, if correctly identified, would provide the earliest evidence for coal use in Britain. But she said that, as coal exists near the surface at Port Seton, it could have been `accidentally' mined when pits or wells were dug.

Dr Faull explained that there were good reasons to avoid coal and stick to timber: coal is a dirty fuel requiring a special chimney, it is hard to extract and process, and heavy to transport. Timber, by contrast, is clean, easy to use and abundant. For these reasons coal dropped out of use after the Roman period until about the 11th century, and only became widely used in post-medieval times.

Rod McCullagh, however, said it was `not surprising' that coal was used at Port Seton in the Iron Age. `Coal is easy to find around here, and it would not have taken much ingenuity to realise it could be burned,' he said.

Coal-mining began again around Port Seton in the 18th century. At the nearby Battle of Prestonpans, where a Jacobite army defeated government troops in 1745, both sides were hampered by large numbers of coal pits dug into the soil.

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Bones reveal medieval air pollution

Medieval air pollution was severe enough to damage the health of people living in towns, according to a study of sinusitis in medieval skeletons.

The study of more than 2,000 skeletons from urban and rural sites found significantly more maxillary sinusitis in urban populations, which the researchers attribute to the effects of living in a smoky atmosphere polluted by industrial fumes.

Infection of the maxillary sinuses is caused by environmental pollutants and dental disease, and chronic infection leaves its mark on bone. Skeletons were studied from the pre-urban site at Raunds (AD850-1150), the village of Wharram Percy (AD900-1600) and the poor urban parish of St Helen-on-the-Walls in York (AD1000-1600).

Mary Lewis and Charlotte Roberts, of the University of Bradford, found maxillary sinusitis in 42 per cent of skeletons from Raunds, 39 per cent from Wharram Percy and 55 per cent from York. Of these, 67 per cent, 60 per cent and 80 per cent, respectively, appear to have been caused by environmental factors, the rest by dental disease. The study did not look at changes in prevalence over time.

According to Ms Lewis, environmental sinusitis at Raunds and Wharram Percy could have been associated with allergies and infections from working with animals, and with exposure to fungal spores and soil-based lung diseases such as silicosis. Charcoal, which is less smoky and sulphurous than coal, was burned in the early medieval period at Raunds.

The parish of St Helen-on-the-Walls, on the other hand, was an industrial area containing a brewery, a tannery, a foundry and a lime kiln. Inhabitants would have been exposed to sulphur dioxide and smoke from burning coal, and to lime fumes from the kiln - chemicals associated with sinusitis and other respiratory diseases today.

`The lesions in the sinuses of the urban population were more severe and proliferative, and included neoplasms or tumours, which may suggest a carcinogenic atmosphere,' Ms Lewis said.

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In Brief

Stolen secrets

Treasure hunters were suspected of a `professional burglary' at the headquarters of the Hastings Archaeological Area Research Group in January.

Equipment of high cash value was left untouched, but a map of nearby Roman sites was stolen from the wall, and cards containing local sites-and-monuments-record information were taken from a locked safe hidden inside a locked cupboard. According to Martin Brown, Assistant County Archaeologist for East Sussex, the Hastings area has suffered illicit treasure hunting on scheduled sites in the past.

Protected warren

A medieval rabbit warren in Bedfordshire has been declared a scheduled ancient monument. The warren, on Dunstable Downs, is thought to have been built in the 13th century to supply meat and pelts for monks at a nearby Augustinian priory.

The site now consists of two raised features known as pillow mounds surrounded by shallow ditches to ensure good drainage. The larger of the mounds is over 32m long, 5m wide at the base and about 1m high. Altogether about 2,000 medieval warrens survive in England.

Training dig

A major new training excavation for students and amateurs will begin this summer at Eton, Berkshire. The excavation, run by the Oxford Archaeological Unit, will examine 2.5km of Thames riverbank containing waterlogged Mesolithic deposits, a Bronze Age landscape including settlements and cemeteries, and Roman material. The excavation will run for at least six years. Volunteers should contact David Miles, Director of the unit at 46 Hythe Bridge St, Oxford OX1 2EP.

Leigh Mill

The early 20th century Leigh Mill, in Wigan, threatened with the removal of its original engine, as reported in British Archaeology last month, has been saved following rejection of the planning application by John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment.

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1995