ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 56, December 2000


King Billy's bombs seen again at Limerick: excavators find unexploded shells that were meant to blow houses apart

Unexploded shells and other military evidence from William III's siege of Limerick in 1690-91 have come to light in the centre of the city.

The legendary siege formed part of William's campaign to crush his father-in-law James II's catholic armies in Ireland, and followed his victory at the Boyne north of Dublin earlier in the year. The siege failed, leading to the Treaty of Limerick in 1691 which the English promptly dishonoured - to lasting infamy.

William's tactic was to bombard the bridge linking Limerick's twin walled settlements on either side of the Abbey River, a branch of the Shannon. Excavations in the river near the bridge, in advance of a drainage scheme, have produced three complete mortar shells with gunpowder and fuses intact and numerous fragments of exploded shells. Also found were about 50 cannon balls, musket and pistol balls, gunflints, a bayonet, buttons and badges from the period, and an ornate hilt from a 17th century rapier.

The mortar shells, each the size of a basketball and weighing up to 15 stone, are among the very few intact examples known that have been fired in anger. Described as `Tom and Jerry bombs' by the excavator, Ed O'Donovan of Margaret Gowen Limited, they have the classic cartoon-bomb appearance - round, hollow spheres full of gunpowder with a hole in the top and a fuse sticking out.

They were no joke, however, when they went off. Lobbed over a town's walls by massive 13-inch cannon, the base-weighted iron shells could easily break through slate roofs and wooden floors until the gunpowder was detonated by a slow-burning timber fuse, blowing the building apart. Anyone nearby was liable to be struck by flying shards of cast iron two inches thick. The shells could be fired over a range of about half a mile.

Among the 6,000 other finds made during excavation in the river were a bronze Viking animal-headed ornament, about 150 medieval coins including one of King Cnut (1016-1035) minted in London, a set of medieval spurs and a 16th century port seal bearing the city's coat of arms and the legend `Lymurick'.

Finds of more recent date include handguns of the Irish civil war of the 1920s, and a man's gold wedding ring bearing the marriage date of 12 February 1798. Was the ring perhaps thrown into the river, in rage or sadness, when the marriage came to an end?

Roman horseman reunited with his head

The head of the Roman cavalryman Longinus has been reunited with the rest of his tombstone, following the remarkable discovery of the missing part in Colchester four years ago. The main tomb was discovered in 1928, face down and in pieces, in what had been the principal western cemetery of the Roman town. All the pieces were retrieved apart from the missing head. In 1996, excavations in the cemetery by the amateur Colchester Archaeology Group found the head, which proved to be a perfect fit with the rest of Longinus's body.

Since then, the head has undergone extensive conservation work.

The tombstone is thought to be one of the two earliest Roman military examples in Britain, dating from the period AD 43-49 when Colchester's legionary fortress was in operation.

The other, also from Colchester, belonged to the centurion Marcus Savonius Facilis and was found in the early 19th century. The inscription on Longinus Sdapeze's tomb records that he was a duplicarius, or second in command, of a Thracian cavalry unit. He was born in what is now Sofia in Bulgaria, and died in Colchester aged 40 after 15 years' service.

According to Philip Wise, Curator of Archaeology at Colchester Museums, the head was intentionally hacked off in antiquity, possibly during the Boudican sack of Colchester in ad 60 or 61. It was found at a slightly lower stratigraphic level than the rest of the tomb, however, suggesting that the tomb may have been re-erected without its head after the revolt, only to be knocked down again at some unknown later date.

Portmahomack monastery dated to the 6th century

The discovery of an all-male cemetery at Portmahomack in Easter Ross, together with new 6th century dating evidence from the graves, seems to confirm that the site was one of Scotland's earliest monasteries.

Finds from previous years' excavations include rectangular buildings, an enclosure boundary, pieces of Christian sculpture including a remarkable dragon carving and Latin inscriptions (BA October 1999, April 2000). The site was previously thought to date from the 8th century.

The cemetery was found to contain only middle-aged and elderly male skeletons, strongly suggesting monks, buried in stone cists or with stones supporting the head. The graves were marked by slabs incised with simple crosses. Four of the men had died from sword wounds to the head. The graves produced radiocarbon dates of the mid to later 6th century which suggest that Portmahomack may have been a Columban foundation linked to Iona.

Archaeologists led by Martin Carver of York University found evidence for intensive craftwork including the crucibles and moulds of metal working, needles and curved knives for leather working, a pumice stone possibly used to make vellum and wood shavings still attached to an iron chisel. A millpond was found with channels leading to what is assumed to have been a horizontal mill, although the mill buildings have not yet been excavated.

Until recently, Prof Carver speculated that the site was transformed during the 8th century from a monastery to a `privatised' religious site under the control of one of several local lords on the Tarbat peninsula (BA April). That view has changed, following the discovery this year that the numerous late 8th/early 9th century carved crosses of Tarbat - thought to mark the centres of the separate lords' estates - were all made from the same imported stone, suggesting centralised control.

Development threats prompt Scottish Battlefields Register

A Scottish Battlefields Register is in preparation at Historic Scotland, following public disquiet over current development proposals at sites such as Bannockburn (1314) and Sherrifmuir (1715).

The Register is expected to serve as guidance for planning authorities, mirroring the English Battlefields Register which was introduced in 1995. The English document has had only mixed success, influencing the rejection of housing proposals at Tewkesbury (1471) but failing to prevent development at other sites including Stamford Bridge (1066) (BA June and September 1997, April 1999).

The Scottish Register is likely to include a wider range of engagements than the English list, which only includes major battles (not skirmishes) whose boundaries can be defined. The Scottish version is expected to range from well-defined battles such as Bannockburn or Culloden (1746) to those with only broadly understood locations such as Largs on the Clyde estuary, where Norse power was defeated by a Scots army in 1263. It will also contain some minor skirmishes which formed part of a longer conflict, such as that between the McLeods and MacDonalds of Skye.

Historical research into candidates for the list is being undertaken by Alan Macinnes, Professor of Scottish History at Aberdeen University. Battles where there is no convincing evidence will be excluded. This may disappoint some campaigners, whose pressure has recently stopped development at the alleged sites of two `patriotic' battles which historians believe did not take place - the Scots king Kenneth MacAlpin's victory over the Picts supposedly at Stirling in 843, and the `Battle of William Wallace's Tree' near Glasgow, where the 13th century Braveheart hero is said to have woken up to find himself attacked by five armed thugs whom he beat off with his bare hands.

Genuine battlefields affected by unsightly new buildings include Prestonpans (1745) in East Lothian which is now covered by industrial development and a railway line. Bannockburn, near Stirling, is currently threatened by a mixed housing and industrial scheme, while holiday chalets have been proposed for Sherrifmuir, also near Stirling.

According to Noel Fojut at Historic Scotland, once a draft register has been drawn up it will go to the Scottish Parliament for approval. `They will then have to decide whether we need any new legislation to make it work,' he said.

Forgotten `royal' graves found in Carmarthen church: George III's first marriage casts doubt on legitimacy of the Queen

Carmarthen, burial ground of wronged princesses. It sounds unlikely, but excavations in the Welsh town's parish church have uncovered the graves of members of what was arguably the legitimate British royal family, at a time when the `usurper' Queen Victoria sat on the throne at Buckingham Palace.

George III, grandfather of Queen Victoria, is said to have secretly married a Quaker girl, Hannah Lightfoot, while he was Prince of Wales in 1759, and produced three children. The Royal Family disapproved, and when George became king in 1760 his marriage and children were concealed to allow him to marry Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in 1761. It is from this allegedly bigamous second marriage that the present royal family descends.

The three children of his first marriage disappeared, more or less. One, George `Rex', emigrated to South Africa. Another, Sarah, married a Carmarthen doctor, James Dalton. This much has long been known.

What was forgotten was that some of Sarah's descendents were buried in the parish church of St Peter's. Avault containing the bones of her daughter Charlotte Dalton (died 1832, aged 27) and grand-daughter Margaret Augusta Prydderch, Charlotte's niece (died 1839, aged 9), was revealed this summer following removal of a late-Victorian tiled floor in advance of restoration work at the church.

The vault was clearly marked by a memorial stone inscribed with the occupants' names, and contained two coffins - one large, the other small - which have not been opened. If lined with lead, the bodies and clothing may still be well-preserved inside.

According to Gwilym Hughes, Director of Cambria Archaeology, the tomb was completely unexpected as it was not recorded in any Victorian guidebook to the church. The occupants' alleged royal connections may not have been appreciated during the 19th century.

The rediscovery of George III's descendents in Carmarthen is now thought to explain the presence of a magnificent 18th century organ built for the royal chapel of St George's, Windsor, but which the king sent instead to Carmarthen in 1796. Previously, historians thought the organ arrived through the influence of John Nash, George's favourite architect, who had carried out some restoration work in the church.

The story of George's marriage to Hannah, although the subject of historical debate, raises intriguing questions about the legitimacy of the House of Windsor. George Rex refused to marry the mother of his sons and made a point of asserting in his will that all his offspring were illegitimate. This raises speculation that he had been warned off marriage by the British establishment. His descendents still live in South Africa.

Is the marriage story true? Harold Brooks-Baker of Burke's Peerage is reported to believe it is. However, because the marriage was not recognised by the Royal Family it was only `quasi-legitimate' and there is no question, he has said, of changing the line to the throne.

In addition to the `royal' vault, archaeologists also excavated a vault containing what is thought to be the head of playwright and essayist Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729), founder of The Tatler. The dramatist's grave was found in 1876 when the tiled floor was laid. Victorian officials removed the head and reburied it in an engraved lead box. Contemporary accounts record that the skull was found in remarkable condition, complete with a wig tied at the back with a black bow.

In brief

Neolithic tomb

A Neolithic long cairn of a previously unknown design has been discovered at Berstness on the Orcadian island of Westray. According to Nick Card of Orkney's archaeology service, its design resembles the early Neolithic houses at Knap of Howar on Papa Westray and is thought to date from the same period, about 3000 BC. Human finger and toe bones, and two skulls, were found outside the tomb suggesting the site of a possible excarnation platform.

World War 1 hospital

Workmen investigating a gas leak in the northern French town of Arras have discovered an underground British field hospital dug out of chalk in 1917. The existence of the hospital was known from records but its entrances had been lost. The hospital's numerous tunnels and chambers were found to contain a litter of First World War remains including boots cut from the feet of wounded soldiers, broken stretchers, steel helmets and empty bully beef tins. A blanket spread on the floor with a pillow at its head was still in position. The walls were carved with crucifixes, and contained niches for candles with the chalk above blackened by smoke. Stencilled signs on the walls indicated the way to dressing rooms, surgical specialists' rooms, communication trenches and the operating theatre, where bullets and shrapnel were found cut from the bodies of the wounded.

Awards 2000

At the biennial British Archaeological Awards last month, the top `Silver Trowel' award was won by Roger Bland for the Portable Antiquities Recording Scheme (BA October). The Press Award went to The Guardian; the broadcast award to Channel 4 for a Secrets of the Dead programme on Towton. Ian Stead's The Salisbury Hoard was voted best book. The ICI award for contribution to knowledge went to the Dover Boat project. Best volunteer project was the St Aidan's Sunken Ships project (Pontefract & District Arch Soc). The site preservation award went to Tyne & Wear Museums for Segedunum Roman Fort; the award for best re-use of a building went to New Lanark Conservation Trust for an 18th century mill. YAC winners were Jonathan Davis (9-12) and Charlotte Bold (13-16).

News is compiled by Simon Denison

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© Council for British Archaeology and individual authors, 2000