ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 5, June 1995


Cattle bones show Roman Lincoln's late survival

An assemblage of cattle bones and insects from Lincoln provides new evidence that urban society continued to flourish there in the late 4th century AD, at a time when many towns were in steep decline at the end of the Roman period.

As one of Roman Britain's four 4th-century capitals, Lincoln was to some extent cushioned from the economic decline affecting the rest of the country, and coin and house-occupation evidence shows it retained an economically active population. Now, the bone and insect evidence suggest that commercial food-processing survived on a large scale, together perhaps with heated buildings.

The closely-dated bones, which represent the waste material of commercial butchery and carcass-processing, had been gathered together after processing to be re-used as building rubble to consolidate the city's waterfront. Excavated by the City of Lincoln Archaeological Unit, the bones have now undergone specialist analysis at the Environmental Archaeology Unit at York University.

The assemblage consists of hundreds of thousands of bone-fragments, representing several hundred cattle, and amounts to one of the largest collections from the late Roman period in the country, according to Keith Dobney of the Environmental Archaeology Unit. `The assemblage is typical of Roman military sites of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, but unique in Britain for this late period,' he said.

Signs that the bones represent commercial (rather than domestic) butchery include the presence of all parts of the carcass instead of just the meat-bearing bones and the fact that the bones had been smashed to extract marrow for secondary products such as cosmetics, soap and glue. Jaw-bones had been scorched and broken, perhaps to let the marrow liquefy and run out. Shoulder-blades displayed hook-marks, suggesting that shoulder joints had been cured or smoked.

`The bones seem to have gone to a variety of tradesmen for processing, and were then gathered up again by a central municipal organisation to use at the waterfront,' Dr Dobney said.

The insect evidence from the same site, analysed by Harry Kenward of the Environmental Archaeology Unit, includes the remains of a cockroach - the earliest yet found in Britain - and other domestic and grain pests such as weevils, many of which only survive in warm buildings. It is thought they may represent debris from a spring-clean of the town's heated grain stores.

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Britain `colonised via Bytham River'

The route taken by the first humans to colonise Britain, around or before 500,000 years ago, appears to have been a major river valley that vanished during the Anglian Ice Age of c 478-423,000 years ago.

A large proportion of known human occupation sites, dating from before the Anglian Ice Age, have been shown to lie along the course of the river - named the Bytham River after the site at Castle Bytham, Lincolnshire, where it was first identified. The Bytham River was the biggest river-system in Britain at the time, which was then attached to the continental European land-mass.

The 14 sites where pre-Anglian artefacts have been found in Bytham River sediments include Waverley Wood near Coventry; and High Lodge, West Dereham, Feltwell, Brandon (Brick Kiln Farm), Hengrave, Lakenheath and Warren Hill in East Anglia.

The river, which rose in the area near Birmingham and drained the Midlands for hundreds of thousands of years in the Early-Middle Pleistocene period, flowed eastwards from the west Midlands and Southern Pennines via Leicester and King's Lynn, then turned south. In the area around Bury St Edmunds, it turned east again towards Lowestoft and what is now the North Sea. Some parts of the river valley were obliterated by the Anglian ice-sheets, while others were covered and preserved by glacial deposits, including tills, sands and gravels.

According to Jim Rose, Professor of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London - who identified the river in the mid-1980s - the coincidence of pre-Anglian occupation sites and the river sediments suggests it was the first major entry-route into Britain from elsewhere in Europe. He said: `It would have been relatively easy to walk along the river's sandy-gravelly banks, and there would have been no major obstacles to cross as far as the Midlands, a ready water-supply, good vegetation and plenty of animals coming down to the water to drink.'

Strangely, the valley of the second-largest British river of the period - the Thames - appears to contain no pre-Anglian occupation sites, suggesting it was not used by Britain's first inhabitants in the same way. Why this was so is still unclear.

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Mesolithic food industry on Colonsay

Evidence of large-scale Mesolithic nut processing, some 9,000 years old, has been found on the Hebridean island of Colonsay. It provides an unusual insight into communal activity and forward planning in the period, and raises the intriguing possibility of a Mesolithic community forced by circumstances to become temporary vegetarians.

The evidence consists of a large, shallow pit full of the remains of thousands of burned hazelnut shells. Hazelnuts have been found on other Mesolithic sites, but rarely in such quantities or concentrated in one pit. Similar sites in Britain are known only at Farnham in Surrey and Cass ny Hawin on the Isle of Man.

The precise function of the pit remains unclear. It may have been where the hazelnuts were roasted and shelled, or where they were stored for later use, or simply a kind of land-fill dump, according to Steve Mithen of Reading University, who excavated the site last year with funding from Historic Scotland.

Possible reasons for roasting and shelling, he said, include the desire to reduce the bulk and weight of the nuts (to make them easier to transport), to prolong their storage life, to improve their flavour, or to make them easier to grind and turn into a paste. `Whatever's going on here is clearly being done on a substantial scale,' he said.

The scale of the activity, unparalleled elsewhere in Scotland (despite extensive fieldwork), suggests the possibility that Colonsay contained a community of enforced vegetarians so long as they remained on the island. The principal prey of Mesolithic people in the area was red deer, but deer and other large game may not have existed on the island at the time. It had been separated from Islay by at least 10 miles of deep water since the last glaciation.

`The people on the island may have been forced into more intensive plant processing than they would otherwise have been, simply because of the absence of large game,' he said.

The pit, at Staosnaig on the island's sheltered east coast, was originally on a beach close to the shore, and was associated with two smaller stone-lined pits, whose function remains obscure, a hearth, and a second cluster of pits that remain unexcavated. The nuts were radiocarbon dated to 7720+/-110BP, which calibrates to c 7000BC.

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In Brief

London cathedral

A MASSIVE late Roman church, possibly London's first cathedral, has been found by archaeologists on Tower Hill. The 4th-century church is almost identical in design to the church of St Thecla in Milan - the biggest church in what was then the capital of the Roman Empire - but the London church is larger. The building, excavated by David Sankey of the Museum of London Archaeology Service, seems to have been built between AD350 and AD400 out of masonry reused from other buildings. It was decorated in part by a veneer of black marble, its walls were painted red, white, grey, pink and yellow, and its floor was made of broken tiles in cement. The church may have been built by Magnus Maximus, who used Britain as a power base to become western emperor between AD383 and AD388. It was burned down in the 5th century.

Dead Sea Scrolls

AMERICAN and Israeli scientists are using DNA to piece together more than 10,000 fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls, mostly written on goatskin. The work, directed by Scott Woodward of Brigham Young University in Utah, aims to decipher the fragments by identifying, and grouping together, the skins of individual animals by analysing their genetic material. So far, about a dozen scraps have been analysed with success. The scrolls were written by the Essenes, a Jewish sect who lived near the Dead Sea between 200BC and AD100.

Salisbury Hoard

TWO METAL detectorists charged with stealing a hoard of Bronze and Iron Age artefacts, known as the Salisbury Hoard, from a farmer's land in Wiltshire, while detecting without permission, changed their pleas to guilty during their trial at Knightsbridge Crown Court last month. The artefacts, found in 1985, included 20 miniature Iron Age shields which were unwittingly bought by Lord McAlpine, former Tory party treasurer, and later sold to the British Museum. Sentence had not yet been passed on the detectorists, Terrence Rossiter and James Garriock, as British Archaeology went to press.

NEWS is compiled by Simon Denison

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1995