ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 52, April 2000


Gemstone evidence for late Roman survival: jewel points to trade between North Wales and the Byzantine Empire

A rare early Byzantine jewel has been found on the site of a remote farmstead in North Wales, adding to the growing evidence for the survival of Roman culture in western Britain in the post-Roman period. The jewel, a garnet inscribed with a scorpion, was made in the eastern Mediterranean in about the 6th-7th centuries AD.

The discovery shows, alongside evidence from other sites, that the `independent' western British kingdoms maintained trading links with the Eastern Roman Empire, at a time when much of eastern Britain had fallen under Anglo-Saxon control. Imported Mediterranean goods of this date, such as pottery, have now been excavated at a handful of sites including the royal settlement at Tintagel in Cornwall.

The jewel, from a signet-ring used for sealing letters and other documents, also demonstrates the survival of literacy and some form of bureaucratic organisation in post-Roman Wales. Recent studies of Latin inscriptions on post-Roman Welsh gravestones and other native documents point to the same conclusion (see BA, March 1998 and April 1998). The inscribed scorpion may represent the astrological sign of Scorpio, although its significance remains unclear.

The site at Cefn Cwmwd on Anglesey, excavated last year by Birmingham University's Field Archaeology Unit in advance of road-building, seems to have originated as a late Iron Age roundhouse farmstead which steadily rose in status over the succeeding centuries. By the mid-late 3rd century the occupiers were using Roman coins and fine tableware including `Samian' dishes - both extremely rare finds in North Wales.

Alongside work on the farm - for which evidence includes quernstones and charred cereal remains - the occupiers found time for some modest dressing-up and for playing games. The excavators found Roman glass beads from a necklace and one gaming counter.

According to site director Gwilym Hughes, the signet ring suggests the owners of the farm had retained their high status locally after the end of the Roman period, entitling them to use a formal signature on documents. Another high-status find was a post-Roman copper-alloy pennanular brooch with ring-and-dot ornamentation, which may once have carried an enamel inlay. Such brooches were made across western Britain in the 5th-7th centuries.

Underlying the Roman farmstead, excavators found evidence for a late Neolithic/early Bronze Age timber circle - marked by a ring of substantial post-holes - with a roundhouse settlement and a cremation cemetery containing Bronze Age collared urns. Inside one urn, alongside the cremated bones, was a single blue-glazed faience bead.

Government rejects conventions on loot trade

The Government has decided not to ratify two international conventions designed to combat the worldwide trade in looted and stolen antiquities. London is thought to be a major centre of this illicit trade.

However in a Parliamentary Written Answer given in February, Culture Secretary Chris Smith confirmed the Government's intention to find an alternative solution that would be compatible with Britain's legal system.

For some years the CBA's Portable Antiquities Working Group has lobbied the Government to ratify both the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Illicit Transfer of Cultural Property and the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen and Illegally Exported Cultural Objects (see BA, December 1997). These conventions allow the rightful owner of stolen or looted antiquities to demand their return. The conventions are not retrospective, so they do not threaten objects in existing collections.

The Government gave no reasons for its decision not to ratify UNESCO. However, it argued that UNIDROIT conflicted with British property laws, for example in allowing compensation to `good faith' buyers of stolen antiquities. Alternative solutions are now being considered by the House of Commons Culture Select Committee, in an inquiry that opened last month into the illicit antiquities trade.

The Portable Antiquities Working Group told the inquiry that the trade in looted British antiquities was as great a problem as that of stolen foreign artefacts in British salerooms. Examples include the Icklingham Bronzes and parts of the Salisbury Hoard. A partial solution would be more rigorous use of export licenses.

The Working Group also pointed to the position adopted by the United States, which has imposed import controls on material from countries whose heritage is under threat. Bilateral agreements with countries such as Mali, Peru and Cambodia are thought to have significantly reduced looting.

Woven clothing dates back 27,000 years

Evidence that hunter-gatherers wore woven clothing, and used baskets, nets and other loom-made textiles some 27,000 years ago has been found in central and western Europe.

The evidence, found by Olga Soffer of the University of Illinois, consists of textile impressions on about 90 fragments of clay from a number of well-dated sites in the Czech Republic, including Dolni Vestonice and Tavlov. The impressions represent by far the world's oldest evidence of weaving yet found. Previously, it was thought weaving was invented by the first settled farmers only 10,000-5,000 years ago.

Detailed examination of the impressions has revealed a huge variety of fine weaving techniques, including open and closed twines and plain weave, basketry and nets. According to Dr Soffer, twining can be done by hand but plain weave requires a loom.

Some of the impressions may have been created accidentally - for example, by sitting on a freshly-laid clay floor, or leaning against a wet wattle-and-daub wall. Wet clay may also have been carried in bags. `Other impressions may have been caused by deliberate action, such as lining a basket with clay to make it airtight,' Dr Soffer said.

Following the clay-impression discoveries, a number of contemporary `Venus' figurines were examined from sites across central and western Europe. Many were found to be wearing clothing including basket hats and caps, bandeaus - straps of cloth wrapped around the body above the breast - and belts worn at the waist or low-slung on the hips, some with string skirts attached. `These figurines have been studied for decades but no-one has paid any attention before to the clothing,' Dr Soffer said.

Excavation in a hermit's cave: new work sheds light on 18th century eviction

Excavations in a Cheshire cave have shed light on the life and demise of an 18th century hermit, whose contemplative existence was rudely interrupted in the 1760s when his landlord redeveloped his estates.

An anonymous pamphlet of 1809 tells how John Harris renounced his worldly goods on the death of his parents to live the life of a hermit `in dens and caves in the mountains'. For some two decades he occupied a cave in the grounds of Carden Park, nine miles south of Chester, before moving on in his 50s, for reasons unspecified, to caves elsewhere. According to the pamphlet, he was discovered aged 99 in 1809, wild and hairy - `the frightfulest figure ever seen'.

Recently, the Carden cave was identified when the Carden Park estate was redeveloped as a golf course. Subsequent excavations, thought to be the first ever undertaken in a hermit's cave, confirmed that it was inhabited in the middle years of the 18th century.

The life of a hermit may have been ascetic but, to judge by the Carden excavations, it may not have been wholly uncomfortable. For a start, the sandstone cave was converted into a kind of residence, its interior enlarged by chiselling into a rectangular space with a slightly arched ceiling and alcoves in the walls, perhaps for storage. Slots in the floor suggest a partition.

Moreover, horizontal slots in the walls and postholes in the forecourt show that the cave once had a frontage. A small free-standing outbuilding stood a short way from the cave-mouth. The hermitage probably resembled a conventional house set into the cliff.

Finds date the conversion to the right period. They include sherds of green glass from drinking vessels, pieces of brown and green-glazed tableware and numerous broken clay pipes. The pottery went out of use in the 1750s or 60s, and was found mixed with stone chippings - probably rubble from the conversion - used to level the forecourt to build the frontage.

Pottery also lay on the surface of the forecourt, perhaps broken at the time of John Harris's final clearance of the cave. It was sealed by a layer of earth associated with the landscaping work that followed his departure.

According to the excavators, Keith Matthews of Chester Archaeology and Anthony Sinclair of Liverpool University, the hermit's exit was prompted by William Leche, who inherited Carden from his father John in 1765. Documentary sources reveal that William was an ambitious and ruthless man, who terminated tenancy agreements, rationalised his holdings and eventually trebled the estate income.

But first, in the 1760s or 70s, he created a `pleasure garden' - a meandering walk designed to show off his estate to best advantage. As part of the excavation project, the walk was traced, and was found to contain a series of stopping places and benches sited to provide impressive views.

And the best view of all? - the one that took in Carden Hall, neighbouring stately homes, and the skyline of Chester where John Leche was Sheriff? Unfortunately this was from John Harris's outbuilding. `A hermit, wild and hairy, would clearly have had to go,' Mr Matthews said. It is unclear where John Harris spent the rest of his days.

Traces emerge of lost Crusader priory in London

Remains of one of medieval London's most important monasteries have been discovered less than a foot below street level, north-west of the City.

The Tudor gateway of the priory of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem still stands, but the rest of the buildings disappeared soon after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540. Now a section of stone wall, thought to have belonged to the priory's Great Barn, has been found standing up to 2m high, incorporated into later cellars. It lay under Briset St in Clerkenwell, named after Jorden de Briset, the Norman knight who founded the priory.

Also from the monastery, on a second site, were fragments of high-quality stone mouldings, including parts of two fireplaces. One was decorated with a Tudor Rose. In addition, excavators found a lead seal of Pope Innocent III (1196-1214), which must have been issued within a few years of the foundation of the monastery in 1185.

Roman ruins `survived in 13th century London'

New excavations at Guildhall in the City of London suggest that substantial Roman building remains may have survived in London as late as the 13th century.

Some twelve years ago archaeologists discovered a Roman amphitheatre directly beneath the Guildhall complex, medieval London's most important civic building.

However, why the two buildings shared the same footprint was unclear.

New work, however, at the entrance to Guildhall Yard has exposed, for the first time, remains of the great gatehouse that stood there in the heyday of the Guildhall precinct in the 15th century. The gatehouse appears to have been built in the 13th century directly over the southern entrance to the Roman amphitheatre.

According to excavators from the Museum of London Archaeology Service, this raises the possibility that enough of the Roman structure survived to influence the siting not only of the gatehouse and Guildhall itself, but also of the church of St Lawrence Jewry whose strange alignment may shadow the elliptical form of the amphitheatre beneath.

Also uncovered were the gravel and cobbled surfaces of the road that led north to Guildhall from the 11th century to after the Great Fire of 1666.

In brief

Roman port

Italian archaeologists have uncovered, for the first time, evidence of docks and warehouses from the harbour in the centre of imperial Rome. Goods from across the empire were barged up-river from the sea at Portus, where extensive remains (now underneath Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport) were mapped by geophysical survey by a British team last year. Rome's harbour remains, at Trastevere, include massive walls from warehouses, baths and offices, as well as mosaics, coins, amphorae, oil lamps and other ceramics from the 2nd-4th centuries AD.

Gothic defeat

Also in Rome, Andrew Wilson of Oxford University has found evidence of the unsuccessful siege of the city by Goths in 537. Byzantine emperor Justinian (527-565) had recaptured Rome from the Goths in 536, and was besieged by returning Goth armies. History records that, to prevent infiltration by enemy troops, he blocked the underground aqueducts leading to the city. Evidence of this has now come to light on the Janiculum Hill, where an aqueduct was filled with masonry, sculpture and pottery from Justinian's period. Following the Goths' withdrawal, Justinian captured the Goth King Witigis and took him to Constantinople in triumph.

Skull surgery

A British woman has survived having a 2cm-wide hole drilled in her skull, in an ancient operation known as trepanation used across the world throughout prehistory. The procedure, which is claimed to `increase blood flow around the brain', generally fell out of use centuries ago. Heather Perry, a 29-year-old sales assistant from Gloucester, had the operation in the United States after learning about trepanation on the Internet. Her reported verdict was: `I have never felt better'.

Army of Pericles

Remains of the dead soldiers over whose remains Athenian statesman Pericles delivered his famous Funeral Oration in 430 BC, recorded by the historian Thucydides, may have been discovered in central Athens. The cremated bones were found with pottery datable to 431-421 BC in a cemetery outside the city's west gate, where the speech was given.

News is compiled by Simon Denison

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