ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 54, August 2000


It's domed but it's not pottery

Gill Hey recalls the first time she found a human body

One of my favourite finds was my first encounter with a human skeleton, when suddenly I came face to face with a person who had lived in the place I was excavating more than 1,500 years ago.

I made the discovery at the Roman town of Caerwent in South Wales in 1973, during the Easter vacation of my second year at Reading University. The conditions we lived in came as a bit of a shock . For three weeks we stayed in a condemned council house in Chepstow, where there was very little furniture, just mattresses on the floor, and it was somewhat less than clean. There must have been 15 or 20 people in the house but there was only one bathroom. Fortunately, there was a constant supply of hot water and a huge bath. The lifestyle was pretty wild, with a lot of late-night parties - quite an eye-opener.

Caerwent is famous for having a large and imposing section of Roman wall which is still standing. We were digging just outside the walls, in what had been an extra-mural area of the town which was later used as a cemetery. Being Easter it was wet and also quite cold. Rain and mud have never worried me very much, but I hadn't realised how exhausting it is to work in those conditions for several days together. Physically it is quite arduous. If you are kneeling on the ground trowelling, the cold does get right into your bones.

One memorable discovery I made with other people at that site was of a floor from one of the Roman houses. I was trowelling down through stiff clay which is quite hard on the wrist and suddenly the soil gave way to reveal a hard surface made up of tiny bits of red tile. I wasn't immediately certain what it was but someone said, `It's an opus signinum pavement', which was an exciting moment.

But what I really remember about the site was finding the human skeleton. I was trowelling and suddenly came across an oval area of softer soil which turned out to be the grave. Very soon bones began to appear starting with the top of the skull. When you haven't found a human skull before it isn't immediately obvious what it is. It's clearly something domed and it's not pottery, but you look at it and think, `Now what is that?'

After two or three minutes I called over the supervisor. I'd cleaned off part of the cranium, revealing a pattern of small cracks (the sutures) crossing it, and the supervisor obviously knew exactly what it was. He made it clear that I then had to be extremely careful and get out the brushes and the toothpicks because a skull is very fragile.

To expose the rest of the body I had to work from the head towards the feet, cleaning downwards at the same time until all the bones were revealed. I wasn't squeamish about it at all. I don't find it spooky handling the remains of the dead, although I believe it's a bit different when bodies have still got flesh attached to them, as happens on some post-medieval sites. In those cases it's as though the people haven't been allowed to decay; they haven't had their time in the ground. Somehow most people don't feel the same when the flesh is completely gone.

Coming face to face with someone who had lived on that site in the Roman period made the whole experience very vivid for me. I had worked on a couple of excavations before but I had only found pieces of pottery and small fragments of animal bone and I'd always felt rather remote from the people I was investigating.

Gill Hey is a Senior Archaeologist at the Oxford Archaeological Unit

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