British Archaeology, no 21, February 1997: News

Roman military supply system `lasted to the end'

Evidence that the Roman military supply system was still functioning at the very end of the Roman period in Britain has been found at the Roman signal station at Filey on the north-east Yorkshire coast.

Scholars have long argued whether the Roman administrative system in Britain in effect collapsed during the 4th century, or whether it continued to function until the early 5th. The new evidence, dating from the 380s and 390s, appears to support the theory of continuation - at least in military supplies. `This is something we have never been able to demonstrate before, ' said the excavator, Patrick Ottaway of the York Archaeological Trust.

The evidence was provided by animal bones from the site, which was excavated in 1993 and 1994. Recent analysis of the bones of numerous cattle, sheep and pigs has shown that the assemblage contained no heads or feet, suggesting that the meat had been delivered to the signal station already butchered and ready to cook. According to Dr Ottaway, the assemblage is unique, as at other Roman sites in Britain complete skeletons have always been found.

Most Roman sites, he explained, contain debris from both military and civilian functions, and the inclusion of heads and feet could represent the remains of civilian as well as military butchery. `Signal stations, however, are purely military, and give a clear, focused impression of how the Roman military supply system operated, ' he said.

The assemblage, studied by Keith Dobney of the Environmental Archaeology Unit at York University, also included oyster shells, which must have been transported from the Kent, Essex or Suffolk coasts or the Firth of Forth, and the bones of a small number of sea-birds, such as guillemot and cormorant, with signs of butchery. Guillemot bones are known from Anglo-Saxon York and later medieval Beverley, but have not previously been found in Roman deposits.

The site at Filey is one of a series of Roman signal stations built along the north-eastern coast, following the recovery and reconstruction of Britain by the general Theodosius (father of the later emperor, Theodosius the Great, 379-395) after barbarian attacks in the late 360s. The signal stations are thought to have been about 100ft high, protected by outer defensive walls with semi-circular corner towers. They may have been intended to offer a warning system to the eastern flank of Hadrian's Wall to the north.

Later deposits at Filey, surrounding the central tower, consist of the tiny bones of rodents and other small mammals. The bones, which seem to have been contained in owl pellets, suggest that the tower gradually became the haunt of owls.


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Government publishes Treasure Act code

Draft guidelines on how the new Treasure Act will operate in England and Wales were published, for public comment, in December.

The payment of rewards to finders has always been among the most controversial aspects of treasure trove procedures. The new, draft Code of Practice specifies that rewards should be divided between finders and landowners where a previous agreement exists between them; but where the finder is trespassing, it should now normally go only to the landowner. Where a finder reports a find, and further finds are made at the site in subsequent excavations, the finder should receive the reward for the entire find and not just for the part he recovered himself, as before. A reduced reward (or none) will be paid, however, where there is evidence that only part of the find has been handed in, if the object or site has been damaged, where all the relevant circumstances are not reported or if there is suspicion that the object was found elsewhere than reported. The code states that archaeologists will not normally receive rewards.

The code, which must be approved by Parliament before the Act comes into force, recognises the important role of metal detectorists in the recovery of treasure. However, referring to the new legal duty to report finds of possible treasure within 14 days, the code says that courts will take account of whether a finder could be expected to know a find was treasure as a result of his hobby or profession. The duty to report treasure applies as much to archaeologists as to anyone else.

Archaeologists are encouraged to allow finders a role in any future investigation of a site. Finders, on the other hand, are urged not to clean objects before handing them in - and inappropriate cleaning is cited as a basis for lowering the reward paid.

National museums will be allowed to house treasure considered of national importance, and to decide the destination of other treasure where two or more regional museums wish to have it. Excavation archives, however, will normally be kept intact where one part qualifies as treasure.

Coroner's inquests will now be held without a jury; and cases will be handled within a target period of 12 months.


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Man-made fields in Bronze Age Shetland

Unusual evidence of Bronze Age ingenuity has been found on Shetland, with the discovery of Bronze Age fields constructed out of man-made soils resting on pure sand in the southern part of the main island.

The fields surround an occupation mound at Old Scatness on the Sumburgh Peninsula, which also contains the remains of an Iron Age broch tower and an Iron Age wheelhouse - a round building with dividing walls like spokes - a Pictish building, Norse refuse material, and postmedieval evidence relating to the known continuous occupation of the site from the 16th century to recent times. The evidence suggests the site, like the similar settlement-mound at Jarlshof a mile away, has been inhabited for over 3,000 years.

The Bronze Age fields, discovered in excavations directed by Steve Dockrill of Bradford University, consist of turf, seaweed and manure built up over time on what had originally been a machair landscape of grass-covered sand. The soils, known as `plaggen soils', were intensively cultivated to grow beard barley. Similar plaggen soils have been found at Tofts Ness on Sanday in Orkney, and at a few sites elsewhere in Scotland, but are not yet known elsewhere in Europe.

The broch, a massive round tower some 18m in diameter, may still be standing several metres high; but so far only a small section of drystone wall has been uncovered. Brochs are now widely considered to have been built as the status symbols of the ruling elite, and the stonework at Old Scatness seems designed with appearance as well as function in mind. The blocks of local sandstone were laid with joints very tight, and coursing very level. `The masonry is simply of a very high standard, compared to that of the later wheelhouse, ' Mr Dockrill said.

South of Old Scatness, intriguing evidence has been found that Shetland may have been first settled from Orkney after all. The evidence is a `stalled cairn', a type of Neolithic burial monument common on Orkney, but previously unknown on Shetland where `heel-shaped' cairns were favoured. It has been assumed that Shetland was settled from the south via Fair Isle, as Fair Isle can be seen from Orkney, and Shetland from Fair Isle - but until now, no Orcadian-style monuments have been found on the island. The stalled cairn was found in a survey of sites in the area, run in partnership with the Old Scatness excavations, by Val Turner of the Shetland Amenity Trust.

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In brief

Pre-Viking Wales

TRACES of a 8th-9th century native settlement on Anglesey were discovered late last year underneath a group of 10th century Viking-age buildings found the previous year (see BA, December 1995). The excavation, led by Dr Mark Redknap of the National Museum of Wales, found an enclosure ditch dated by radiocarbon and by finds such as a coin, a Northumbrian styca, from the first half of the 9th century - one of only two such coins known in Wales. Evidence of industrial activity was found, and a large timber hall may also date from this phase. The site lies a short distance from a natural harbour at Red Wharf Bay. According to Dr Redknap, the beach was perhaps used as a market place - like those at Luce Sands and Meols near Chester - and the settlement seems to have been producing material for trade on the beach.

Wall paintings

ROMANESQUE wall paintings, thought to be the oldest extensive surviving church frescoes in Britain, have been discovered in a ruined church in Norfolk. The paintings were found by a retired local engineer, who noticed red ochre underneath ivy on the church walls. They include the oldest depiction in Europe of Christ on the Cross before an enthroned God - a motif that was to become a standard form in Europe throughout the Middle Ages. Although a number of Romanesque wall paintings survive in Britain, most date from the 12th century, whereas the new discoveries are thought on stylistic grounds to date from about 1090, three years after the death of William the Conqueror. Conservation is being overseen by English Heritage and Norfolk County Council.

Finds reporting

THE GOVERNMENT has made £150,000 available for a series of pilot schemes over two years for the recording of archaeological finds not covered by the Treasure Act, to start in September. The money is earmarked for additional staff to record finds in three or four areas of England. Organisations keen to take part should contact the Department of National Heritage by 14 February.

NEWS is compiled by Simon Denison

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1997