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Cover of British Archaeology

Issue 58

April 2001



Earliest evidence of lead mining at Cwmystwyth

Fine mosaic floor of Roman dining room preserved in London

Defensive spikes point to Roman fear of the North

Rare Iron Age chariot burial discovered near Edinburgh

A tale of two potters, a burnt house and a cemetery

In Brief


Medieval thatch
John Letts on the survival of medieval plants in thatch

Finding the New Rome
Ken Dark and Ferudun Özgümüs on new work in Istanbul

Great sites
David Hinton on the 7th century royal site at Yeavering


Voting for archaeology
Simon Denison on Archaeology and the General Election


Cider and beer, Seahenge, Early metal, Water


Why we must redefine 'treasure', by George Lambrick

Peter Ellis

Regular column


Circles of Stone by Max Milligan and Aubrey Burl

Children and Material Culture edited by Joanna Sofaer Deverenski

Wood and Woodworking in Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval York by Caroel A Morris

Air Photo Interpretation for Archaeologists by DR Wilson

CBA update

favourite finds

Long reach of the flint knappers. Mike Pitts's find links a Suffolk pub with a South Sea island.


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Simon Denison


Earliest evidence of lead mining at Cwmystwyth

Lead mining tradition of Central Wales goes back 4,000 years to the Bronze Age

Traces of Britain's earliest known lead extraction have been found at the Bronze Age mine site on Copa Hill, Cwmystwyth, in mid-Wales. The site has also produced evidence that may explain why the mine was abandoned, and a wealth of Bronze Age mining equipment including several lengths of well-preserved wooden 'launder', or drainage guttering.

Radiocarbon dates suggest the site was mined for copper sporadically for up to 600 years, starting about 2000 BC. Recent excavations by Simon Timberlake of the Early Mines Research Group have also found signs that lead veins were worked in the latter years of the mine's operation. In one place a stone chisel was found wedged across a lead vein, while quantities of crushed lead ore were found elsewhere on site.

Fine mosaic floor of Roman dining room preserved in London

One of the finest early Roman mosaics found in Britain was excavated earlier this year in London. Possibly the centrepiece of a dining room, the mosaic shows no sign of wear and was probably new when the house burned down in about 120-125 AD.

The decorated floor is thought to have been made for a wealthy citizen who was perhaps connected to the recently-built Roman fort nearby. Stylistically the floor represents a transition between earlier ‘black and white' geometric mosaics, such as those at Fishbourne in Sussex, and later mosaics which tended to become more baroque in colour and imagery.

The mosaic, excavated by the Museum of London Archaeology Service, is only the third of its date to be found in London, and is by far the most complete. About half of the design survives, set within a red tessellated border. The room in which it was laid seems to have contained a verandah on the side facing away from the street, presumably over looking a courtyard garden. In other respects, however, the building was relatively modest, being timber-framed, single-storey, and without a hypocaust. It is thought to have been destroyed in the great ‘Hadrianic Fire' which swept through London in about AD120-125. Utensils datable to the early 2nd century, such as cooking pots, flagons, dishes, plates and other containers were buried as the building's walls collapsed. Many of the pots contained food, which residues survive.

Defensive spikes point to Roman fear of the North

New evidence from Hadrian's Wall suggests the tribes to the north posed a far more serious threat to the Roman army than was previously supposed. For the Þrst time, rows of stakeholes have been found against the north face of the wall which are thought to have held sharpened forked posts, designed to fend off heavy attack.

The discoveries were made unexpectedly during a rescue excavation at Byker, now in the suburbs of Newcastle but in open countryside during the Roman period. According to the excavator, Paul Bidwell of Tyne & Wear Museums, the three rows of densely-set stakeholes exactly match descriptions of defensive barriers found in Roman writers such as Caesar. Evidence that the stake-settings were replaced some time after their initial construction suggests the defences were a long-term feature. They may have stood up to 8ft high and 10ft deep.

The stakeholes cast doubt on the commonly-held view that the wall was devised to fend off only small-scale raiding parties and to act as a customs barrier, Dr Bidwell said. 'It now seems clear that the Romans were frightened of massive attack.'

Similar stakeholes were found near Wallsend, surrounding the vicus (or settlement) enclosure outside the Roman fort. They have not yet been found at other parts of the wall. However, they may have simply been overlooked as few archaeologists have examined the area between the wall and the ditch, Dr Bidwell said.

By coincidence, pits that may have held defensive stakes set up by Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn in 1314 were also identified last month on an air photograph. It was taken in 1984 by the Scottish Royal Commission at a time when a small part of the relevant area of the battlefield lay under arable, and the pits showed up as cropmarks. The whole area now lies under pasture The photograph had not previously been examined by archaeologists.

Rare Iron Age chariot burial discovered near Edinburgh

The immensely rare discovery of an Iron Age leader buried on his (or her) chariot in a grave - in the continental style - has come to light during a rescue excavation on wasteland at Newbridge outside Edinburgh.

Iron components of the chariot were found in a good state of preservation, including the two wheel rims and hub- hoops, the yoke fittings, harness and horse bits. The wood of the chariot, however, and all organic grave-goods such as clothing, have disappeared. All that remains of the person are a few scraps of tooth enamel.

Iron Age burials of complete standing chariots in pits under a mound were quite common in France and Belgium in the 3rd-2nd centuries bc, but only one previous example has been found in Britain, near Pickering in North Yorkshire. In the Yorkshire case, however, the chariot had not been buried underground but was merely covered by a mound of earth. The famous Iron Age 'Arras culture' graves of the Yorkshire Wolds contained chariots, but these had been dismantled before burial.

Many of the continental graves were richly furnished, with Fine decorated La Tène objects, Mediterranean imports and weaponry. Sadly, the Edinburgh grave seems to have contained no examples of metalwork. According to the excavator, Stephen Carter of Headland Archaeology, this suggests either a different burial rite from the continental tradition, or that the grave had been robbed of portable items at a time when the mound was still visible - perhaps during antiquity.

The discovery of what seems to be a rare Gaulish-inspired burial rite in the north of Britain is a surprise, as the direct influence of continental Iron Age culture in Scotland appears generally to be slight.

Few examples of La Tène metalwork are known north of the border, although they include the spectacular 3rd-2nd century horned ‘Torrs' pony- cap, a British-made artefact in a continental style which is one of the chief prehistoric exhibits of the National Museum of Scotland.

A tale of two potters, a burnt house and a cemetery

Archaeological work in Colchester over recent months has produced new evidence of Queen Boudica's systematic destruction of the town, a large mid-late Roman cremation cemetery, and a tale of what seem to be two 2nd century deluxe-pottery business failures.

A Roman house built in the 50s ad and subsequently destroyed by fire, presumably by Boudica in ad 60 or 61, was found through excavations in the centre of the town. According to Philip Crummy, Director of the Colchester Archaeological Trust, the discovery fits the pattern found elsewhere in Colchester, where every pre-Boudican building without exception was found to be burnt down, suggesting that the Icenian queen's destruction of Colchester was methodical and complete.

The absence of burnt furniture, possessions and bodies - again, as seen elsewhere - indicates, however, that the Roman settlers had time to clear away their possessions and seek safety away from the town. This matches the evidence of the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote that the citizens of Colchester found refuge in the nearby Temple of Claudius.

The house appears to have stood for some time as a burnt- out shell. Later, the frontage was razed and buried under a new wide footway along the side of the road. Eventually new houses were built over the rest of the plot, including one with a D-shaped basin projecting into the garden which appears to have been an ornamental garden pool. Rare in Britain but common in the Mediterranean, this pool may suggest the occupant had come to live in Colchester from abroad.

The cremation cemetery, one of only two Roman urban cemeteries excavated in Colchester in modern times, was partially dug to reveal 73 graves. Most of the cremated remains had been placed in urns of everyday pottery with no grave-goods. Some graves, however, were more richly furnished with personal items including shale and copper-alloy armlets, jet beads, coins, a small stone mixing palette probably for cosmetics and a green glass unguent bottle. The cemetery dates to the 2nd-4th century.

Over recent decades in Colchester, archaeologists have found hundreds of fragments of Roman pottery-moulds used to make top-of-the- range decorated 'samian' pottery, and a specialised samian kiln. New analysis of the 2nd century moulds points to two different (but unnamed) Colchester potters. Study of samian ware found in the town, however, suggests the local potters had scant success selling their wares. Out of some 1,000 fragments, only about five were made in the town; the rest were imported.

According to Mr Crummy, the standard of the Colchester ware was as good as the foreign competition. Without distribution costs, it ought to have been cheaper to buy. The apparent failure of the two Colchester businesses thus remains a mystery.

The latest issue of ‘The Colchester Archaeologist', a magazine published annually by the Colchester Archaeological Trust, was published last month at £1.99. The Trust can be contacted on 01206 541051.

In brief

Great Orme

A spoil tip of copper ore processing waste near a spring on the Great Orme, North Wales, has been dated to the early Bronze Age - the first tip of this date from a site other than a mine yet found in Britain. Bone from the mound was radiocarbon-dated to between about 1880 and 1680 bc. Other finds examined by Barbara Ottaway and Emma Wager of the University of Sheffield include charcoal flecks, a possible hammerstone spall and small nodules of copper carbonate ore. The site lies close to the Great Orme copper mine, and suggests that ore was transported to the spring to be ground up and washed before smelting.

Rookhope Mill

The Environment Agency has escaped prosecution for bulldozing parts of Rookhope Old Smeltmill, an 18th century scheduled monument in Co Durham, in 1999 (BA February 2000). The Agency had failed to consult archaeologists before proceeding with decontamination works. However, this year English Heritage decided not to resort to court action in recognition of the ‘positive way' the Agency had responded after the monument was damaged. The Agency has agreed to liaise more closely with other organisations, and to fund further archaeological work at the mill.

Roman fort

One of the earliest Roman forts in Britain has been excavated north of Oxford by archaeologists from Leicester University. The bases of the fort's gateposts had been preserved in waterlogged conditions, and tree-ring analysis showed they had almost certainly been felled in autumn 44 ad - the year of Claudius's invasion. Other discoveries include a wooden beaker, barbed arrowheads and armour.

Viking Disease

A national study of heart disease, sponsored by the British Heart Foundation, has blamed the lasting influence of Viking settlement for a cluster of genetic anomalies in north-eastern England which can predispose the carrier to heart disease. Alistair Hall, consultant cardiologist at the University of Leeds, contrasted the pattern of Viking settlement in the North with more varied continental settlement in the South leading to a stronger, heterogeneous gene pool.

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