British Archaeology banner

Cover of British Archaeology issue 59

Issue 59

June 2001

Contents

news

Quarries threat to archaeological landscapes

Digging down through rubbish to reach the 'best-preserved Victorian ironworks in Wales'

Prestige feasting 'dates back to hunter-gatherer era'

Unique Roman town indentified in hinterland of Hadrian's Wall

Bronze Age village found with buried megalith

In Brief

features

The edible dead
Cannibalsim as a universal human practice, by Tim Taylor

The glory that was York
Cosmopolitan York in the 8th century, by Dominic Tweddle

Town of tin
A 20th centruy town that has now disappeared, by Bill Bevan

Great Sites
Balladoole, by Mark Redknap

letters

Ancient thatch, feasting, Northumbria, hillforts

issues

George Lambrick on the varied impacts of foot and mouth

Peter Ellis

Regular column

books

Britain and the End of the Roman Empire by Ken Dark

Time Team's Timechester by Lewis, Harding and Aston

The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture by Jacques Cauvin

Roman Officers and English Gentlemen

CBA update

favourite finds

If it shines, it is gold. David Miles on an early Christian gold pendant

 

ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Simon Denison

favourite finds

If it shines, it is gold

David Miles recalls finding Christian jewels in a cemetery of West Saxons newly converted from pagan beliefs

One of my favourite finds was a gold medallion from an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Lechlade in Gloucestershire, which I excavated for the Oxford Unit in 1985. One of the reasons it is fondly engraved in my memory is that this was one of the last times I was a proper archaeologist getting my hands dirty - I became Director of the Unit the following year.

At the time we were involved in a major landscape study of the Upper Thames Valley, unravelling the history of fields in the area. This site, which was going to be a housing development, was a flat area of former arable field, featureless on the surface but which had cropmarks that we thought were late Bronze Age enclosures intersecting with Roman fields and cutting through early Bronze Age barrows.

Human remains

When we started digging we did indeed find those enclosures - but within a matter of minutes we also started to find human remains which were completely unsuspected. As we scraped off the topsoil we saw the dark outlines of graves, and in some of them the bones were very close to the surface. The site turned out to be one of the largest Anglo-Saxon cemeteries in the Thames Valley.

It was densely packed with graves. A lot were aligned north-south and a lot were east-west, and these east-west graves were stratigraphically later, connected with the adoption of Christianity after about AD 650.

The dress worn by the rich women was very interesting. In the 5th and 6th centuries they all had distinctive regional or tribal dress - here, it was West Saxon. Basically if you were travelling through southern England at this time you'd have known where you were by the way that women dressed. But when you get to the 7th century, you have the first generation 'English' burials because the rich women are wearing a dress which is pan-Saxon.

Whereas the earlier burials show evidence of contact with the northern world, particularly in amber beads and objects with German and Scandinavian-style influences, the later generations in the east-west graves show influences that are more to the South, to Merovingian Gaul, to Constantinople and beyond.

So instead of amber they are now wearing amethysts. If you rub amber it becomes electrical, it is a symbol of the sun and is very much a pagan stone. Amethysts are a symbol of heaven because of their colour, and are still worn in bishops' rings today. The first generation Christians did not give up their habit of being buried with all their finery, and particularly with protective amulets, but the amulets now have Christian significance. Instead of necklaces of wolf's teeth they wear beaver's teeth because the beaver is not so associated with the pagan gods.

The other thing you get with the later burials is a lot of gold and silver, especially gold medallions worn in the throat, set with garnets which probably represent the blood of Christ. The gold is probably from Merovingian coins melted down, and the garnets could have come through Constantinople from Northern India or even Ceylon. So here was a small community in Lechlade whose network went right across the world as far as Ceylon.

The medallion that I particularly remember, part of a necklace, was a circular gold pendant with a cross made out of filigree gold, with a garnet at the centre and four garnets in each of the four quadrants. There were a number of medallions in the cemetery but this one was the finest.

Lure of gold

It's a dreadful cliché to be excited by gold, but the thing about gold that is so remarkable in the ground is that it looks so damned new. No matter how many times you find gold objects you are always shocked that they have been lying in the ground for 1,400 years or whatever, but look like they have only been there since yesterday.

Excavating, at least on a good site, allows you to get really absorbed into an activity which is both intellectual and physical, and nothing gets in the way of it. You don't have any interruptions. The job I do now couldn't be more different - though I wouldn't say I miss digging. Being an archaeologist is a bit like being a footballer. You have a period when you are fit and active, but when you get older, you get rather more aches and pains. You're not as fit as you were.

David Miles is the Chief Archaeologist at English Heritage

CBA web:

British Archaeology

Jan/Feb 2005
Mar/Apr 2005
May/Jun 2005
Jul/Aug 2005
Sep/Oct 2005
Nov/Dec 2005
Jan/Feb 2006
Mar/Apr 2006
May/Jun 2006
Jul/Aug 2006
Sep/Oct 2006
Nov/Dec 2006
Jan/Feb 2007
Mar/Apr 2007
May/Jun 2007
Jul/Aug 2007
Sep/Oct 2007
Nov/Dec 2007
Jan/Feb 2008
Mar/Apr 2008
May/Jun 2008
Jul/Aug 2008
Sep/Oct 2008
Nov/Dec 2008
Jan/Feb 2009
Mar/Apr 2009
May/Jun 2009
Jul/Aug 2009
Sep/Oct 2009
Nov/Dec 2009
Jan/Feb 2010
Mar/Apr 2010
May/Jun 2010
Jul/Aug 2010
Sep/Oct 2010
Nov/Dec 2010
Jan/Feb 2011
Mar/Apr 2011
May/Jun 2011
Jul/Aug 2011
Sep/Oct 2011
Nov/Dec 2011
Jan/Feb 2012
Mar/Apr 2012

CBA Briefing

Fieldwork
Conferences
Noticeboard
Courses & lectures
CBA Network
Grants & awards

CBA homepage