ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 45, June 1999


Symbolic finds on site of new Scottish Parliament

Excavations on the site of Scotland's new Parliament building, near the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, have produced a number of strikingly apt discoveries.

One find was a single 14th century coin, in good condition, bearing a saltire (or St Andrew's Cross) - the symbol of Scottish nationhood. Numismatic analysis has not yet established the exact date of the coin; but it is known to date from the century of Robert the Bruce, which some regard as the high point of independent Scotland's martial good fortune.

A second appropriate discovery concerns Queensberry House, a 17th century town house which occupies part of the site of the new Parliament. Historical research commissioned by the excavation team has shown that its original owner, the First Earl of Queensberry, was one of the architects of the 1707 Act of Union. The manner in which his house and grounds will be incorporated in the new Parliament area is a neat historical irony unforeseen when the site was chosen.

Much of the evidence uncovered by the excavation, however - said to be the largest urban excavation ever undertaken in Scotland - relates to medieval and post-medieval brewing. Whether this will also prove a symbolically appropriate history for the site of the Scottish Parliament waits to be seen.

From the early 19th century until the present day, part of the site was the headquarters of Younger's brewery (later Scottish and Newcastle). Documentary evidence, however, associates the area with brewing from a much earlier date, and possible brewing pits of both 13th and 16th century date have been found. The water-tight pits were bonded with clay and stone, and supplied with culverts in the later period. A pitchfork, possibly used for handling barley, was found associated with the earlier features. Definite evidence of brewing has not been found, but similar pits have been interpreted as breweries elsewhere.

Other finds from the excavations, jointly undertaken by Headland Archaeology and the Scottish Urban Archaeological Trust, include large numbers of medieval gaming pieces, a tubular ceramic seal thought to date from the 17th century, and a 13th century iron dagger with a copper alloy handle. Medieval pottery from Italy, France, Germany and the Low Countries, including many types never before found in Scotland, indicate a high-status area of a town that enjoyed a flourishing international trade.

The large, formal gardens of Queensberry House are also being recovered. Once terraced, the gardens were levelled with rubble in the early 19th century to create a military parade ground.

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`Imperial malting' found in East Anglia

A large Roman aisled building that may have been used as a barn and malting complex has been excavated at Mildenhall in Suffolk. The discovery of a possible Roman malting is rare, and the size of the Mildenhall building suggests that a very large - possibly even Imperial - agricultural estate lay nearby.

Aisled Roman buildings - that is, buildings supported by two lines of enormous posts - are not uncommon in the countryside and are usually interpreted as barns. The Mildenhall example differs in that it contains a large central hearth connected to a flue that runs across, or underneath, the compacted chalk floor. Other slots in the floor suggest the presence of internal structures - another unusual feature. Two millstones and large quantities of charred grain spawned the malting hypothesis.

Confirmation, however, awaits specialist environmental analysis of the grain and other remains, according to Ellen Finch of the Suffolk Archaeological Service, who directed the excavation. `We will be looking in particular to see if any of the grains have sprouted,' she said.

The building, which dates from the 1st-2nd centuries, lies on the edge of the Fens. It has often been suggested that the Fens were owned and exploited by a major landowner in the Roman period, possibly the Imperial estate, according to John Newman of the Suffolk unit. The new building may support that view, he said, because only a wealthy owner with large estates could have set up and run a malting on this scale.

The barn was surrounded by a late Iron Age and Roman field system. Another Roman compacted chalk floor - presumably from a similar building - was found some years ago a short distance to the north.

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New evidence for Viking love of towns

A theory, now in vogue, that the Vikings kick-started the development of English towns has been boosted by the results of a six-month excavation in the centre of Norwich.

The excavation has established that the 9th-11th century town - a principal urban centre of the Danelaw - was far larger than has previously been thought, and was equal in size to its Norman successor.

Even before the current excavations, Norwich, and its neighbour Thetford, were thought to rank fifth and sixth in size among English towns, after London, Winchester, York and Lincoln, by the time of Domesday Book (1086). The rapid expansion of Norfolk's towns, and other towns of the Danelaw after the 9th century, has led to the view that the region's Viking rulers fostered an economy dominated by a few large urban centres, in contrast to the more numerous smaller market boroughs of Saxon Wessex (see BA, June 1998).

The Norwich excavations, directed by Andy Hutcheson of the Norfolk Archaeological Unit, took place in a district known since Norman times as the French Borough, west of the Norman castle. The district, possibly reserved for Norman merchants, was thought to have been laid out in 1070-75, at the same time as the castle, on a greenfield site - an idea disproved by the discovery of Saxon-period tenements under Norman levels. Norwich's late Saxon size, indicated by the excavation, may explain the Normans' desire to assert their presence in the town by a major programme of rebuilding.

One particularly interesting find was a small late 9th century Viking-style gold ingot. Fragments of 10th-11th century gold-working crucibles were discovered nearby, suggesting late Saxon gold-working in the area. According to Mr Hutcheson, the ingot came out of the ground in pristine condition - `as though it had just been lost'.

The excavations have also produced evidence for possible 12th century property development. Two tenements fronting the market were bought up and subdivided into six or seven new buildings. Two of these appear to have been high-status stone halls with open, vaulted areas at ground-floor level. A gilded copper-alloy book-mount of this period with a blue glass stone at its centre - an emblem fixed onto the leather cover of a book - was found nearby.

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In brief

Timber ring

The timber circle and upturned tree found recently on the Norfolk coast (see BA, December) will be fully excavated this year with funding from English Heritage. The timbers and tree will then be lifted from the ground, for further analysis and conservation at Flag Fen, the waterlogged Bronze Age site near Peterborough.

The structure reappeared last year as a result of coastal erosion, and is now at risk of severe damage by the sea. English Heritage, in consultation with English Nature, local authorities and other bodies, concluded that complete removal of the monument was the only way to preserve it.

The Roman Town House in Dorchester, Dorset - said to be the best-preserved example of a Roman town house in Britain - has been put back on display after a three-year conservation and excavation project. The 3rd-4th century house contains mosaics and hypocaust heating systems, and has now been enclosed within an oak-framed steel-and-glass structure.

Roman ships

Excavations run jointly by the British School at Rome and an Italian team have uncovered eight almost perfectly preserved Roman ships from the ancient harbour of Pisa, which has long since silted up. The ships, dating from the 3rd century BC to the 5th century AD, range in length from 24ft to 90ft and include one thought from its prow to be a warship - the first ever found. The rest have been interpreted as small cargo vessels transfering goods to Pisa from larger ships moored off the coast.

Some of the ships were propelled by oars, others were under sail. One mast has been found, together with hundreds of amphorae containing traces of their original contents - cherries and plums, chestnuts and walnuts, olives, wine and oil. The jawbone of a wild boar suggests livestock may also have been carried.

Italian archaeologists excavating the subterranean Golden House in Rome, built by Emperor Nero next to the Colosseum, have found the signatures of both Casanova and the Marquis de Sade scratched into a fresco. The graffiti were inches apart.

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1999