ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 4, May 1995


Grave found of one of the first Irish Christians

The skeleton of a man who may have been one of Ireland's first Christians has been found on a hilltop south-east of Ballyhaunis on the Roscommon-Mayo border.

Excavated by archaeologists from Queen's University, Belfast, the skeleton was found buried without grave goods, and aligned east- west in the Christian manner. It has been radiocarbon dated to AD418- 442 (at a 68 per cent probability) or AD406-532 (95 per cent probability), consistent with the dates of St Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, who traditionally began his missionary work in AD432.

According to Finbar McCormick, a Lecturer at Queen's, it is the only certain 5th century skeleton in Ireland, and the earliest Irish burial known to be aligned east-west. The location of the burial - at the foot of a standing stone, with a cremation burial and a traditional late Iron Age ring barrow cemetery nearby - suggests it took place on the point of transition between the pagan and Christian eras in Ireland. `The inhumed male may have been a Christian who still wanted to be buried with his ancestors,' he said. Tirachain's 7th-8th century Life of St Patrick records that the saint worked extensively in Roscommon and Mayo, converting many people in Cruachain, ancient capital of Connacht, which lies 20 miles from the hilltop burial site. `If people want to believe this man was converted by St Patrick, the evidence is there for them to believe it,' Dr McCormick said.

Christianity may have taken off in 6th century Ireland because unusual climatic events of the time matched those recorded in Exodus and Revelation, according to Mike Baillie, Director of the Palaeoecology Centre at Queen's University, Belfast.

Prof Baillie, a leading dendrochronologist, has long argued that records of a dust veil in the mid 6th century are supported by extremely narrow growth-rings in European oaks in the 540s (see British Archaeological News, June 1994). The dust veil is said to have dimmed the sun, leading to snow in summer, crop failure, famine and plague. Comets, inundations and earthquakes were recorded. The absence of an acid signal in Greenland ice cores suggests the cause was not a volcanic eruption but possibly a prolonged meteor shower.

Now, writing in the latest issue of the journal Emania, Prof Baillie suggests these climatic events may have set the seal on St Patrick's missionary work the previous century, reflecting Biblical stories of plagues in Egypt, famine, frost, darkness, and the parting of the Red Sea. `Christianity may have been a religion whose cosmic imagery had a contemporary relevance,' he writes.

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Kill site found of Palaeolithic hunt

The place where a large animal - perhaps an aurochs or an elk - seems to have been hunted down and butchered some 10,000 years ago has been found near the Thames at Staines in Surrey.

The site contains vertebrae and ribs but no long bones the classic assemblage of a killing site, where the animal's meat-bearing leg bones were chopped off by Palaeolithic hunters and carried back to camp, to avoid dragging the full weight of the carcass over a distance perhaps of several miles.

The site - a gravel pit at Church Lammas, which is currently being worked - also contains a large number of flint tools of the distinctive Late Upper Palaeolithic `long-blade industry', including long blades, crested blades, hammer stones, burins, long-blade cores and `bruised' blades, so-called because they seem to have been damaged by chopping up antler and bone. The flint pieces can be refitted together, suggesting the blades were made on the spot for the act of butchery and then abandoned.

Palaeolithic sites containing both flint and animal bone in situ are rare anywhere in Europe, and extremely rare in Britain - with only one other site of the Late Upper Palaeolothic known, at Uxbridge a few miles to the north. The site at Uxbridge, excavated in 1987-88, contains horse and reindeer antlers and leg bones radiocarbon dated to about 10,000BP, and seems to have been a long-term settlement site surviving into the Mesolithic era.

John Lewis, of the Museum of London Archaeology Service, who directed the Uxbridge excavation, said the hunters of the Staines animal might have come from the Uxbridge camp. `If you shoot a large animal with arrows, it could easily run a few miles before dying. The site at Staines could just be where it died,' he said.

Archaeologists from the Surrey County Archaeological Unit had only a watching brief on the gravel pit where the flint and bone were found; but English Heritage has since agreed to fund a full excavation at the site. Once all finds are recovered, specialists will look for clues to the relationship between the sites at Staines and Uxbridge, and for evidence for the landscape and environment in which the animal lived, was hunted, and died.

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Rivers `not sacred' in Bronze Age

The idea that metal objects were thrown into rivers and pools in the Bronze Age for ritual or votive reasons - an idea firmly established among scholars of the period - has been challenged by a new study of Bronze Age metal deposits in East Anglia.

East Anglia has one of the richest concentrations of Bronze Age metal in the country. But according to the study, part of an unpublished PhD thesis by Colin Pendleton, Suffolk's Sites and Monuments Record Officer, the vast majority of metal finds seem to have been deposited on dry land. Most metal finds of the period, the study suggests, represent either accidental losses, rubbish from settlements, or hoards buried as insurance against metal shortage.

Over 11,000 objects of Bronze Age metalwork have been found in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, but - excluding material from the Fens - only 72 of them were found in water, the study says. Of these, seven or eight came from modern watercourses, and most of the rest were widely scattered, with only one slight concentration of 15 finds on the River Little Ouse. The concentration was closely associated with a dry-land settlement scatter, and comprised the same type of material, suggesting it was domestic rubbish that had somehow found its way into the water.

The large quantity of material from the Fens, generally assumed to have been deposited in water, was mostly found on subsoils below the Fenland peat rather than in the peat, and was therefore deposited before the Fens became a watery landscape, the study says. Most of it was associated with, and at the same stratigraphic level as, domestic rubbish from settlements such as pottery, worked flints and quernstones.

`The implications of these findings are enormous,' Dr Pendleton said. `The religious significance of wet places, in East Anglia at least - and I suspect elsewhere as well - can now be discounted.'

The study's conclusions are unlikely to be accepted without question, however, by other scholars. Francis Pryor, Director of the Bronze Age/Iron Age site at Flag Fen, near Peterborough, said the findings were `absolutely at variance' with Flag Fen. `We have excavated about 330 bronzes, and all of them were deposited, without a scintilla of doubt, into water,' he said.

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In brief

Stolen antiquities

Two British antiquities dealers and a police detective have been charged with handling stolen goods, following an international police investigation into a London-based trade in looted antiquities from Egypt and China.

Scotland Yard's art and antiques squad recovered a large number of artefacts in the operation, looted from the Egyptian necropolis at Saqqara and from tombs and caves in China. The racket was exposed last year by Jeffrey Spencer, Assistant Keeper of Egyptology at the British Museum, who recognised some of the artefacts when approached by dealers to verify their provenance. Jonathan Tokely-Parry, Andrew May, and DC Roger Box of Gloucestershire Police will appear before magistrates in July.

Heritage sell off

The maintenance and repair of national monuments cared for by English Heritage is to be contracted out, following a decision by the agency to `sell off' its entire Historic Properties Restoration department, consisting of 250 skilled craftsmen and about 100 managers. The privatisation of a further 100 architects, landscape architects, surveyors and engineers from the Design and Works department is also under consideration. The decision has provoked anxieties among some heritage groups and members of English Heritage staff, who fear that maintenance budgets will be cut and that standards will fall.

Shipwreck list

The first volume in what aims to be a comprehensive guide to shipwrecks in British waters, the Shipwreck Index to the British Isles, has been published by Lloyd's Register. Compiled by Richard and Bridget Larn, curators of the Shipwreck and Heritage Centre in Charlestown, Cornwall, it lists more than 7,100 wrecks, from the 9th century to the present, lying off the Isles of Scilly, Cornwall, Devon, Lundy Island and Dorset. The full ten-volume work is expected to contain over 120,000 wrecks. Entries include details of the ship and its cargo, the circumstances of its loss, its location and its condition.

NEWS is compiled by Simon Denison

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1995