The edible dead
The glory that was York
Town of tin
Editor Simon Denison
From Mr Martin Ecclestone
Sir: John Letts's work on the composition of medieval thatch ('Living under a medieval field', April) allows a remarkable insight into the crops and weeds of the time, and the variability of 'land race' cereals.
I must disagree however with the statement that 'all early buildings in Britain . . . until the late medieval period were thatched'. It depended where you lived. Manorial accounts for Thorner, north-east of Leeds, describe the repair and rebuilding of ordinary village houses and barns there in 1421-4. Apart from a thatched barn, all the roofs were covered with 'sclatston' - the locally made sandstone tiles - as they were for another three or four centuries.
There are also occasional references to heather as a roofing material. The 1353-4 accounts include repairs to the manor's watermill, with the following items: 2d for buying a cartload of lyng (heather) for roofing the watermill; 2d for paying a man to uproot the lyng; 3d for hiring a cart to carry the lyng to the mill; 7½d for paying a roofer for 3 days to roof the mill with the lyng and straw.
In the Scandinavian parts of Britain, were not turf roofs the general rule? In the Faeroes today, the oldest houses (and quite a number of newly built ones) grow grass on their roof, and I am told that the turf used to be laid on a layer of birch bark, now replaced with waterproof sheeting.
From Prof John Collis
Sir: In Bettina Arnold's article on feasting among the Celts ('Power drinking in Iron Age Europe', February), she seeks parallels for the well-documented consumption of wealth in the Hallstatt period in later Irish sources. Why choose the Irish sources, other than that they may have spoken the same language? (We do not, in fact, know what language was spoken in southern Germany in the 6th century BC.) This comparison assumes that the societies documented in Ireland are somehow the same as, or descended from, the 'Celtic' societies several centuries earlier on the Continent. This is a view that most scholars would now reject. 'Political feasting' is a world-wide phenomenon. For instance, the equipment she describes is as common in the German-speaking world as the Celtic.
She also writes that 'the peak of feasting - and in particular political feasting - came in the late Hallstatt period (about 600-450 BC)'. The Hallstatt graves may be among the richest burials we have from prehistoric Europe, but they represent consumption in the funerary context, which is not the same as feasting (though I would agree that feasting probably went on). In fact the number of wine amphorae we have from the Heuneburg - one site she mentions - hardly gets into double figures.
This stands in contrast with what we find in central France in the 2nd century BC, the period when we have the best documented ceremonial feast or 'potlatch', that given by the Arvernian leader Luernios described by Posidonius. Certain sites in central and southern Gaul at this time such as Corent and Mont Beuvray produce amphorae in their thousands, and the total import of Italian wine amphorae must have been measured in hundreds of thousands if not millions - see the recent article in Revue Archéologique du Centre by Matthew Loughton and Steve Jones. We do in fact even have a possible ceremonial site at Brée;zet near Clermont-Ferrand in the Auvergne which is contemporary with the Louernios story, and is stuffed with broken amphorae.
We also have evidence that amphorae were sacrificed as though they were human - beheaded and attacked with swords, the subject of a doctoral thesis at Lausanne by Matthieu Poux. It is these sites that represent the extreme of consumption, but the Auvergne is an area in which we have no rich pre-Roman burials, indeed few burials at all, despite Louernios being described as 'the richest man in all Gaul'.
On a completely different subject, I'd like to comment on David Hinton's description of Brian Hope-Taylor's excavation at Yeavering (Great Sites, April) as being 'old fashioned' and a 'series of square or rectangular trenches across the site separated by unexcavated baulks'. In my new book on excavation technique, Digging up the Past, I depict Brian as one of the pioneers of 'open area excavation'. He may have dug in 'trenches' but they were big trenches, up to 25m by 40m encompassing complete buildings, a contrast with the 3m by 3m trenches that Mortimer Wheeler was employing at Stanwick at more or less the same time. Hope-Taylor himself describes this on p31 of his report, aiming for 'total initial exposure of large areas with as few dividing balks [sic] of ploughsoil as possible'. Brian was a brilliant excavator - I remember attending a lecture he gave on his excavations at Dunbar, and thinking I ought just to throw my trowel away.
From Ms Lindsay Allason-Jones
Sir: Could I draw your attention to an error in David Hinton's article on Yeavering (Great Sites, April)? The artefact captioned as the Maltby brooch is actually a gilt bronze buckle with garnets from East Boldon, Tyne and Wear. Both the buckle and the Capheaton Hanging bowl, also illustrated in the article, can be seen in the Musuem of Antiquities at the University of Newcastle.
From Mr Andrew Sewell
Sir: Peter Davies's letter on the lack of sources of water at hillforts and other hilltop settlements (Letters, April) raises an interesting point. In Wiltshire, on the clay above the chalk there are a number of ponds, sometimes known as 'dew ponds', which generally do not dry out in the summer. A superficial investigation round these ponds usually reveals a few prehistoric sherds. This seems to indicate that they provided the local population then living with their water.
One particular pond on Southward Down is quite close to signs of a settlement through the Iron Age, Romano-British and later periods. Until quite recent times there was an outlying cottage which disappeared when the pond became the centre of a modern plantation.
To establish these ponds, it would appear that a natural sink pit was the basic requirement and this could be improved by digging and, of course, sealing as required with the clay. Another feature in Wiltshire is the 'reverse' sink pit, marked by an accumulation of flints and sarsens on a small mound on top of the chalk. These are clearly geological in origin but are nonetheless sometimes related to signs of settlement before the locals moved down to the valleys.
This suggests that a close examination of hilltop sites might reveal 'ponds', either within the site or close by, which could have provided at least a minimal water supply throughout the year.
From Mr David Evans
Sir: Nice to see that British Archaeology keeps up the April Fool tradition of including a spurious item in its April issue. I shall fall for the trap and assume that Peter Davies is being serious when he asks in his letter about the sources of water on hillforts. It is rain.
We welcome letters from readers. They may be emailed to Mike Pitts the Editor at email@example.com or faxed to 01904 671384. They may be edited.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005